Addicted to Tobacco Taxes

Published November 1, 2002

Arizona’s politicians can’t make up their minds about tobacco.

When Arizona sued the cigarette makers in 1996, the state minced no words in describing the pernicious effects of smoking: “Tobacco products are not only addictive, they are abnormally dangerous and unfit for human use. Tobacco products kill, maim, and injure virtually all who use them.”

Reading that, any rational person would have to conclude the state would criminalize cigarettes. Evidently, consistency and logic take a back seat when big bucks are at stake.

Instead, the “cash-cow” coalition signed a national settlement that protected the profits of the tobacco giants so they can be milked periodically to replenish depleted state coffers.

Now that same coalition is promoting Proposition 303, a statewide referendum on the November ballot to increase Arizona’s cigarette tax from 58 cents to $1.18 per pack—the nation’s fifth highest rate. The goal of 303 is to pay for a laundry list of programs, like expanded health insurance and funding for trauma centers. Those programs, desirable or not, are mostly unrelated to tobacco prevention.

If taxpayers want more health insurance and trauma centers, let all the taxpayers—not just smokers—foot the bill. Indeed, cigarette surcharges are brutally regressive. They represent a wealth transfer from generally poor smokers to more affluent non-smokers.

Roughly 60 percent of tobacco taxes are paid by smokers with annual incomes under $40,000. Furthermore, federal and state cigarette taxes already generate far more than smoking-related costs paid out of the public purse. The contrast between tax receipts and public costs is mind-boggling.

In 1995, Arizona’s excise taxes were 58 cents per pack. According to Harvard economist Kip Viscusi, the state spent 1.12 cents per pack on tobacco-related medical care, and lost 1.55 cents per pack in payroll taxes due to smokers’ early mortality.

Thus, the 58 cents per pack excise tax was more than 20 times the combined tobacco-related cost to the state of 2.67 cents. In short, smokers have more than paid their way.

That’s Not All

If Proposition 303 passes, the unavoidable consequence will be a flourishing and pervasive black market that spawns illegal dealings dominated by criminal gangs. And who knows where that black market money may end up? In 2000, federal agents arrested 18 Hizbollah guerrillas in North Carolina and Michigan for trafficking in contraband cigarettes to raise funds for Islamic terrorists.

Of course, Tempe, Arizona property owners already know what it’s like to be “Propositioned” by the anti-smoking crowd. In May, Tempe voters enacted Proposition 200, which banned smoking in so-called public places, like private restaurants, bars, billiard halls, and bowling alleys.

The ban made Tempe’s smokers second-class citizens, despite considerable dispute within the scientific community regarding the link between environmental tobacco smoke (ETS) and adverse health effects.

In an important respect the scientific debate over ETS is beside the point. The real issue is property rights. On private property, only the owner has the right to say how that property is used, providing he respects the valid rights of others.

Smokers have no legitimate right to light up in my restaurant. Nor do non-smokers have a legitimate right to prevent smokers from lighting up in my restaurant. If I choose to permit smoking, or to prohibit smoking—for good reasons, bad reasons, or no reason at all—that’s my business. Smokers or non-smokers who disagree with my decision may go elsewhere.

Prior to Proposition 200, some restaurants in Tempe voluntarily opted for a smoke-free environment, and others offered both smoking and non-smoking sections. Mostly, customers relied on common courtesy and mutual respect to resolve disputes. But thanks to the ban, government has poisoned the atmosphere far more than secondhand smoke ever did. Meanwhile, some Tempe businesses complain their revenue has dropped by as much as 20 percent.

However unpopular the tobacco industry, however repugnant that some people may become addicted to smoking, there are countervailing values that sustain a free society. When government makes unwanted choices for individuals about their recreation, lifestyle, and health, that’s paternalism at its worst.

Robert A. Levy is senior fellow in constitutional studies at the Cato Institute. He is the author of a Goldwater Institute policy paper on tobacco issues, released in early October. This op-ed appeared in the September 19 issue of the Arizona Republic.