Using Taxation to Win-Win-Win!

The battle over to what extent smokers should be free to exercise their legal right to smoke a legal product is one area of modern concern. In this battle most of the areas smoker’s “control” is becoming smaller and smaller. Pretty much inside any building or any place where minors may gather is forbidden territory, protected by law or local rules. But the battle is over how much smokers alone must contribute to paying for the recognized negative health and societal effects of their habit remains a perennial budgetary issue, both at the state and national level. And a time where so many entitlements have been established, and so many have been financially stressed by the economic depression of the last five years, the opportunity to impose additional taxes on smokers seems the “cure-all for lawmaker’s revenue problems.”

As Peter Hirschfeld reports for The Barre Montpelier Times Argus, “Increasing the excise tax on cigarettes by $1.25 per pack . . . will not only close the budget gap and save $116 million in avoided health care costs, but also will win legislators points with voters back home.”

But businesses that sell this legal product to adults only see this as an economic body blow. The current surcharge on cigarettes places Vermont as the eighth-highest in the nation. This draws in smokers from New York and Massachusetts which have the first and second-highest tax on cigarettes. But neighbor New Hampshire is a dollar cheaper than Vermont and if Vermont goes even higher then New York and Massachusetts smokers may bypass Vermont altogether.

But the goal of the anti-tobacco groups is reduction and elimination. Kevin O’Flaherty, the Northeast’s regional advocacy director of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids says, “Significant cigarette tax increases are the single most effective way to reduce smoking across the entire population, but especially among youth.” And a study by the Institute for Health Research and Policy (University of Illinois at Chicago), tracked smoking rates in Vermont from 1995 and 2010. The state excise taxes went from $0.20 a pack to $2.62 a pack. But smoking rates dropped by over 30 percent, from 22.1 percent to 15.4 percent. People just quit.

The message seems to be whether on a national, state or local level: we are not criminalizing your activity nor forbidding it everywhere. The seeds that were planted have come to full bloom and the tax man wants an ever larger portion for the costs foisted on society. Smokers are being increasingly asked whether their simply enjoying a private vice does not also demand they pay their share of the wide-spread negative societal and health consequences.

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