The Wages of Sin Are Taxes and Ostracism

GEORGE F. WILL

February 17, 1992|By GEORGE F. WILL

Washington. --- King James I, author of ''Counterblast to Tobacco,'' denounced tobacco as ''harmful to the brain and dangerous to the lungs'' -- this in the 17th century -- and increased taxes on it 4,000 percent. Now Virginia, the state that began with Jamestown settlement, named after James I, has flinched from increasing cigarette taxes even half as much as it should.

A rejected bill would have put the tax at 20 cents a pack. Virginia's tax has been 2 1/2 cents since 1966, when it was cut from 3 cents. The national average is 24 cents. The nation's highest, Hawaii's, is 47 cents.

Taxing cigarettes when tobacco is the state's largest cash crop may be hazardous to political health, but a 20-cent tax would obviate the need for unpopular budget cuts and increases in state fees and charges. North Carolina, where 56 percent of America's cigarettes are made, recently was driven by budget problems to raise the per-pack tax from 2 to 5 cents. Tobacco is a waning force there: The number of tobacco farms fell from 100,000 to 41,800 from the mid-1980s to 1991; poultry now is a bigger business.

The tax treatment of tobacco is relevant to today's entwined arguments about health care and budget deficits. Americans spend 13 percent of GNP on health care, $2.2 billion a day. There would be huge savings if Americans drank moderately, drove sensibly, exercised regularly, ate prudently and smoked not at all. Two of today's expensive epidemics, crack and AIDS, also are primarily ''chosen calamities'' -- results of dangerous behavior.

Smoking is the leading preventable cause of death. It kills more people than AIDS, cocaine, heroin, alcohol, fire, automobile accidents, homicide and suicide all together. A national campaign against smoking is a paradigm of sound policy against optional problems.

Consider California, where in 1988 (the year lung cancer surpassed breast cancer as the leading cause of women's cancer deaths nationwide) voters enacted, by referendum, a 25-cent increase (to 35 cents) in the cigarette tax to fund tobacco education, medical care and research. A small amount money (a pittance relative to cigarette advertising) has funded anti-smoking broadcast commercials such as:

''Only one in four Americans smokes, so chances are every time you light up somebody hates you. What a great way to keep your phone bill down.''

''I mean, I'm not a businessman but just, I mean, a crazy thought. I mean, why sell cigarettes? Why not just sell phlegm and cut out the middleman?''

''I tried it twice and I, ah, got all red in the face and I couldn't inhale and I felt like a jerk and, ah, never tried it again which is the same as what happened to me with sex.''

In three years the percentage of Californians smoking has declined 17 percent.

Canadians were heavier smokers per capita than Americans as recently as 1989. No more. Consumption has declined about 25 percent in three years. Virtually all cigarette advertising is banned and health warnings must cover 20 percent of the front and back of a pack. Most important, since 1984 federal taxes, including sales taxes, have risen from 42 cents to $1.94 a pack. Provincial taxes bring the tax bite to about $3.70, so a pack costs about $5.50. Demand for cigarettes is most price-elastic among teen-agers, those most vulnerable to cigarette addiction.

Tobacco companies, denying it all the way, work to hook tomorrow's cancer victims young. Consider Camel's hugely successful advertising campaign featuring Old Joe, the cartoon camel. Strong evidence suggests a causal connection between cigarette advertising and cigarette addiction among young people. Certainly the Old Joe campaign, now four years old, has coincided with a sharp increase in Camel's penetration of the youth market.

A coincidence? A study of children aged 3 to 6 showed that Old Joe was not quite as familiar as the McDonald's and Coca-Cola emblems but was more familiar than the Cheerios' emblem. An astonishing 91 percent of 6-year-olds recognized Old Joe, about as many as recognized Mickey Mouse. The Camel people say the cartoon is aimed at adults and they are shocked -- shocked! -- that anyone suspects otherwise.

The issue of health care is hot among politicians just now. They should be asked about tobacco subsidies and other issues relating to a habit that kills 430,000 Americans a year -- more than 1,100 a day -- at an annual cost of $52 billion ($221 per American) in health care, insurance and lost productivity.

The growth of the U.S. tobacco industry is primarily overseas. About a quarter of all U.S.-made cigarettes are exported (many to Japan) and about 40 percent of raw tobacco grown here is sold abroad. On the home front, the latest survey of U.S. college freshman reveals that both liberalism and smoking are again increasing on campus. Foolish choices are still jeopardizing public health.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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