Smoking and kids: Higher tax may snuff cigarette market

March 27, 1994|By MIKE LITTWIN

Health-care reform is still far away. In fact, you should probably measure the distance in light years. But maybe something good will come of the fight anyway.

Earlier this week, a congressional subcommittee came up with a cigarette-tax increase of a buck and a quarter a pack to help pay for the program.

Too bad it couldn't have been two bucks. Or three. Or 33.

As of now, the federal tax is 24 cents a pack. Twenty-four cents? Why not just have the government send out invitations to smoke?

That 24 cents is roughly equivalent to a wink and a nudge. The message is you should use your change to save up for a monogrammed Zippo lighter.

Now, don't get me wrong. I have no problem with people smoking. Like many of you, I find yellow teeth and fingers a turn-on.

And if people want to kill themselves smoking, that's their business. I just don't want them to kill me.

I have my own method for killing me. It's an inordinate fondness for double-bacon cheeseburgers. I like 'em rare, just so no stray bacteria get burned off. And if I'm eating a burger and I can still feel the blood pumping through my veins, I send it back for a cholesterol booster.

There are other folks, health nuts I guess, who are interested in living for as long as they possibly can.

And so, the anti-smoking bias really took off when somebody stumbled upon the semi-obvious conclusion that second-hand smoke kills everyone. In other words, the smoker is basically a stalker and we're the victims.

That's why there's the rush of legislation to segregate smokers into modern-day leper colonies.

It's probably too late to help me. I've got more than a million air miles in the days when you could smoke on an airplane, and the smoke wafted toward the non-smokers like, well, a heat-seeking missile.

Besides, I grew up in a house where my mother, who has now quit, used to smoke a minimum of three packs a day. To say our house was smoke-filled is to say the English moors are foggy. Not only couldn't you breathe in the house, you couldn't see. We lost my little sister for much of the early '60s. And we never did locate the cat.

I briefly dated a smoker. Let me just say it was like doing mouth-to-mouth with Joe Camel.

She thought it was cool. That's the problem. Smoking is kind of cool, especially the cigarette dangling from the lip in that Bogart kind of way. It's an easy form of rebellion and suggests that playing by the rules is somebody else's game. That's very appealing if you're 15.

It's also where the tax can make a difference. The addicts are going to pay whatever it takes. That much we know. Just like prohibition didn't work for booze and the street-corner crack dealers don't lack for customers, you can't tax real smokers out of their addiction.

Therefore, the tax is expected to raise about $16 billion a year. Even today, that approaches real money, part of which would be used to help tobacco farmers convert to a crop that might be more useful to society, like pickles.

But where the tax matters is for the 15-year-old with limited funds. The kid has priorities. Those jeans with the holes in the knees don't come free, you know, even if they look like they do. You've got new Pearl Jam CDs coming out. You've got Beavis and Butt-head T-shirts. The list goes on and on.

When the price of cigarettes goes up, fewer kids begin smoking. You could look it up. Somebody did. In Canada, where the taxes on a pack of cigarettes run about $3, teen-age smoking has dropped 60 percent in the last decade.

In America, the numbers are rising. A number I saw was that 3,000 kids start smoking each day.

Everyone is appalled by that. Even the tobacco companies, otherwise known as the merchants of death, pretend they're not interested in selling cigarettes to kids. They're lying, of course.

They're also fighting any tax hike. According to the polls, most Americans favor the cigarette tax. The tobacco companies, meanwhile, keep throwing money at congressmen -- and don't be surprised if they beat back the proposal.

If this bothers you, you can fight back. Philip Morris, the No. 1 merchant of death, also owns Kraft and Miller. See how they like it if we stopped buying their Cheez Whiz or Lite beer in protest. For a change, we could hit them where it hurts, instead of the other way around.

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