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Jewish World Review / May 25, 1998 / 29 Iyar, 5758

Mona Charen

Mona Charen

Taxing smokers for fun and profit

THE TOBACCO LEGISLATION coming out of the Senate Commerce Committee is enough to make one wonder whether it matters if Republicans hold onto the Congress in 1998.

This legislation bears all of the familiar marks of Democratic bills -- a huge cash grab by the federal government (new taxes), the creation of 17 new and permanent federal boards, and an enormous aggrandizement of federal power. All of this is done in the name of solving a problem that the federal government cannot solve -- teen smoking.

The tobacco bill was shepherded to passage in committee by the very disappointing Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who is now receiving the kind of respectful press coverage that makes the stoutest conservatives turn to Jell-O.

We can understand why someone like President Clinton seizes upon teen smoking. It has an easily demonized target (the tobacco companies), a halo effect ("this is about our children"), and the desirable result of increasing federal power and encouraging busybodies.

But conservatives should be skeptical of this legislation six ways from Sunday. To begin with, there is the fraudulent claim that this is a bill about curbing teen smoking.

Only 2 percent of cigarette sales are to teenagers. The overwhelming majority of smokers are adults who make an informed choice. Yes, most smokers begin the habit as teenagers, but millions quit. There are just as many former smokers as there are smokers in the United States today.

I would strongly discourage my children from smoking. But should we severely tax lower-income adults who make the choice to smoke? Why not tax those who drink too much or consume too many potato chips? They too are endangering their health. There is no logical stopping point in the campaign to coerce people into healthy habits.

The tobacco bill is also a giant internal contradiction. As Sen. John Ashcroft, R-Mo., argued on the Senate floor, the premise of taxing smokers is that they will quit rather than pay up. But the revenue flow that is projected from the bill -- to pay for all those anti-smoking ads, new federal boards, pay-backs to farmers and much more -- is that the new taxes will have no effect on smokers.

The tobacco companies are to be punished, under the so-called "look back" provisions of the bill, if smoking among teenagers does not decline by fixed amounts. But as even The New York Times acknowledges in a front-page report this week, no one has any idea whether doubling the price of a pack of cigarettes will have the slightest impact on youth smoking. "The way the number was derived has nothing to do with what will effectively get us there," Dr. Michael Thun, vice president of the American Cancer Society, told The New York Times.

This bill imposes the largest tax increase since the punitive Clinton hike of 1993 (whose stated intention was to punish those who had done well during the 1980s -- like Mrs. Clinton). And this will be the most regressive tax in recent memory. Three-quarters of smokers earn under $50,000. If this bill passes, they will pay an additional $1,000 per year per household.

Teen smoking is a bad idea. But it is hardly the most serious problem affecting teens. Drunk driving, illegal drugs and violence are all more serious challenges. Besides, who really believes that a federal hectoring effort is going to change the behavior of kids? A survey published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in September 1997 found that the factors that prevent kids from smoking are strong connections to family, lots of shared activities with parents and a strong attachment to school.

If states want to try anti-smoking measures, let them withhold driver's licenses from kids caught smoking. That would concentrate their minds. But this federal cash grab merely spreads money around to all of the politicians' favorite projects. Not only do the usual federal nannies get a big chunk of this money but also the so-called public interest groups. The National Organization for Women has received $458,779 in federal grants since 1994 to discourage women from smoking. Please.

It is the premise of this demagogic legislation -- that adults are not responsible for their actions -- and not cigarette smoke that is poisoning so much of American life today.


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©1998, Creators Syndicate, Inc.