Paying for health care: We'll huff, and we'll puff

ROGER SIMON

April 04, 1993|By ROGER SIMON

The bad news is that smoking will kill you.

The good news is that plenty of people still smoke.

Confused? I'll explain:

Bill Clinton has decided that everyone in America should be covered by health insurance, a goal that befits a great nation such as ours.

To do this, however, we are going to need oodles and oodles of money. Current estimates are it will cost anywhere from $30 billion to $90 billion to cover the 35 million Americans who currently have no health insurance.

So President Clinton asked his wife, Hillary, to check around to see if the government had an extra $30-90 billion tucked away somewhere that it didn't need.

After an exhaustive search of several weeks, no extra money was found. So the Clintons decided it should come from smokers.

I want to go on record as endorsing this plan.

The Clintons and I agree on one thing:

Although some believe we should hate the sin and not the sinner, when it comes to smoking, we can make an exception.

Smokers are the last minority group on earth it is OK to despise.

Want to say that smokers are dumb as mud? Go ahead. More people die each year from smoking than from alcohol, heroin, cocaine, suicide, homicide, car accidents, fires and AIDS combined.

Combined! So you not only have to be dumb to smoke, you have to be practically brain dead.

Are smokers selfish? Of course smokers are selfish.

In January, the American Heart Association published a study showing that smoke lingering in the air from cigarettes and other tobacco products causes an estimated 53,000 deaths a year.

In other words, smokers pass on their pain and suffering to non-smokers. And do parents who smoke know that they are hastening the death of their own children? Yes, but they smoke anyway.

And that's what I call really selfish.

What else can we say about smokers? Oh, yes: They stink. Literally. Try to stand next to a smoker for five seconds without going: "Phew!"

Currently, our government does three things about smoking: It taxes it, it denounces it, and it contributes about $40 million to the smoking industry each year.

This is contradictory, but much of what government does is contradictory.

Which brings us back to the Clinton health care plan.

The Clintons have strongly suggested they are going to slap a $2-per-pack federal tax on cigarettes in order to pay for part of their new health care plan.

This would raise the cost of a pack to above $4 in some areas, or more than double what it costs now.

According to the Tobacco Institute, about 24.2 billion packs of taxed cigarettes were sold in the United States in fiscal year 1991. So the math is pretty easy:

At $2 tax per pack, we are talking about raising $48.4 billion per year.

Which would pay for a low-end health care plan for all Americans not currently insured.

That's the good news. Here's the bad news:

Estimates are that for every 10 percent increase in cigarette prices, demand declines by about 4 percent among adults.

So if the price of cigarettes doubles, smoking would decline by about 40 percent.

The good news is that fewer people would be smoking. The bad news is that tax revenues would drop and we could no longer pay for our health care system.

(It is true that with less smoking there will be less disease and health care costs should drop, but we all know they won't. We all know that health care costs will continue to rise, especially if we find new and better diseases to replace the old ones.)

So you know what that means? It means we will have to keep boosting the tax on cigarettes higher and higher as smoking declines.

And don't forget that 1,189 people die each day in America from cigarette smoking, so they won't be paying any taxes.

I have crunched the numbers and this is what I figure will happen:

In about March of 2001, some guy is going to walk into a 7-Eleven in Baltimore, ask for a pack of cigarettes and be told: "Yessir, that will be $48.4 billion, please."

And, boy, is he going to be ticked.

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