09 July 2008

Anti-Smoking Nazis

The Objectivist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
June 10, 2008

New York recently increased taxes on smokers. This is yet another attempt to harass and punish smokers. This is a part of a broader trend to use the taxes, coerced settlements, and unconstitutional restrictions on free speech to bash unpopular groups. This trend is far more disgusting than is smoking.

New York raised the cigarette excise tax to $2.75, making it the highest tobacco tax in the country. The federal government taxes cigarettes at $.39 per pack, thus making every pack cost more than $3.00 per pack in taxes alone. The government makes more profit per pack than do the tobacco companies.

The high state tax explains why the same pack of cigarettes might cost around $33 on the reservations and around $60 elsewhere. This is somehow fitting coming from the state that has the highest tax burden and that is represented taxpayer-haters like Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Rep. Brian Higgins (D-NY). For the last term, The National Taxpayers Union gave them grades of 6 and 5 last year (out of 100).

In the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement, which was meant to fend off government rape of their industry, the cigarette companies agreed to pay $206 billion to the states and $1.5 billion to an antismoking campaign. It also agreed to open industry documents. Back in 1970, the federal government prohibited cigarette companies from advertising on TV. Despite the fact that they are legal adults, 18 year-olds are prohibited in four states and a couple of New York counties from buying cigarettes.

The most common argument for the taxes and settlement is that smoking costs the government money and these programs allow the state to recover from smokers what it can expect to spend on them in extra health-care costs. The problem with this argument is that it likely rests on a false premise. One 1997 study from The New England Journal of Medicine found that if all smokers quit, long-term health care costs would increase. This is because more smokers die early and medical costs increase with age. If the concern is for government coffers, we should probably subsidize cigarettes.

The notion that the government may decide to cover medical costs and then use this coverage to justify regulating every aspect of our lives is odd. If anything, this is a reason for the government to stop paying peoples’ medical bills. In addition, this argument has no stopping point. If it is correct, then the government should tax being a housewife, being fat, gay sex, and anything else that hurts its balance sheet.

The second argument is that cigarette smoking is addictive and hence the government needs to help people accomplish their own goal of quitting smoking. By addiction, I mean that smoking generates a physical change in smokers’ bodies that makes it uncomfortable to quit. This argument then slides from the fact that it is uncomfortable to quit to smokers being unable to do so. The problem here is that persons can and do voluntarily quit. One summary of findings by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that almost half of adult smokers had successfully quit. Other (now dated studies) found that 90% of those that have quit did so without professional treatment. In addition, the Buffalo News cites studies indicating that for every 10% increase in the price of cigarettes, there is a 7% drop in youth smoking and a 4% drop in adult smoking. None of these facts are what one would expect were smoking involuntary.

Even if cigarettes are involuntary for some users, this is not a reason to prohibit everyone from enjoying them. People get addicted to alcohol and no one wants to bring back prohibition. On a side note, with the high tax levels in New York relative to other states, it is only a matter of time before a significant black market in cigarette develops, where buyers and sellers attempt to evade the punitive taxes. Who will be the Al Capone of cigarettes?

The third argument is that cigarette smoking is destructive and no matter what people want they need to be protected against themselves. This is the view that we are like children whom the government needs to protect against ourselves. One version of this argument sometimes takes the form that smokers don’t know that smoking is dangerous. However, no serious theorist makes this claim. That is because researchers (for example, Vanderbilt University economist W. Kip Viscusi in 2006) have repeatedly found that smokers consistently overestimate smoking-related risks of lung cancer, life expectancy loss, and total mortality loss.

A more straightforward paternalist argues that smoking is dangerous and irrational and hence we don’t lose anything if it is banned or taxed into oblivion. Again, once the government gains the authority to interfere with our smoking-related choices, it’s hard to know what aspect of our lives it cannot regulate. Such interferences are also insulting. The government has no right to dictate whether and how much we smoke or drink any more than it may tell us how often we must exercise or with whom we may have sex.

In addition, it is not obvious that smoking is irrational. Smokers enjoy their cigarettes as evidenced by the fact that they pay high prices and risk their health to use them. In addition, smoking cessation sometimes leads to weight gain. Kent Sepkowitz of Slate points out that in one 1991 study in The New England Journal of Medicine found that more than 22% of former smokers gained at least 17 pounds and 10% gained 30 lbs. How would you look with another 30 lbs? He also cites a 1995 study that found that current smokers were the thinnest, followed by never-smokers, and then the quitters. Being fat makes a person less attractive and this has costs. Economist Steven Landsburg points out that less attractive women tend to attract the lowest quality husbands and seriously overweight women get paid 7% less than other women (about the same as an extra year of college or three extra years of work experience). Are the risks of smoking or not quitting greater than those of getting a lower quality spouse or no spouse, and lower wages? This strikes me as not an easy question and one that depends on what someone values.

The fourth argument is that we need to protect the children from smoking and if that means taxing at a high rate, banning it, and carving out an exception to the First Amendment, then so be it. At Fredonia, one sign that the campus nannies put up asks people not to smoke in that area because children might see them smoke. To see what’s wrong with the sign, consider a sign asking fat people to use a different entrance because children might see them and think that it’s okay to be fat. We’d immediately reject such a sign because it is mean-spirited. This is true even though being overweight costs the government money and is harmful, irrational, and the opposite of sexy.

The attack on cigarettes is just as mean-spirited and even less justified.


The Objectivist said...

Smoking also sets a bad precedent because it suggests that government should use the tax system to dictate our recreational activities. I wonder how people would respond if we taxed people who are fat, don't exercise, use or make other choices deemed not in the public health interest.

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