Don’t Balance County’s Budget on Smokers’ Backs

Published March 1, 2004

As a professional economist and nonsmoker, I have been following with great interest the current debate over the cigarette tax increase being considered by the Cook County Board of Commissioners.

The current county cigarette tax is 18 cents a pack. The proposal would increase that by 82 cents a pack, reaching a total county tax of $1.00 a pack. That’s a 450 percent increase.

An excise tax hike of this size is vastly disproportionate to the social cost of smoking. Experts such as Harvard University’s Kip Viscusi say smokers already pay more in taxes than whatever their habits cost society in hospitalization and insurance costs. Claims to the contrary fail to acknowledge that all people, smokers and nonsmokers, require medical attention in the months before they die.

Also implausible is the claim that higher taxes on cigarettes are necessary to discourage teenagers from taking up the habit. The vast majority of smokers, and therefore those who pay the taxes, are adults. Why should they have to pay more to keep cigarettes out of the hands of teenagers? Most teenage smokers don’t even buy their cigarettes from commercial outlets, but “borrow” them from older friends and parents. A tiny fraction of the amount the higher tax is expected to bring in would be required to enforce laws already on the books against under-aged smoking.

It is plain that public health claims are simply a veil–a smoke-screen, if you will–hiding the county commissioners’ real goal, which is to raise revenues to keep pace with their rising spending. They settled on higher taxes on smokers because they believe such a tax will generate less public opposition than higher sales or property taxes, since only 20 percent or so of the adult population smokes.

Unfortunately, the commissioners may be right about the political correctness of taxing smokers. But this cynical tactic is patently unfair to smokers, who do not deserve to be singled out for higher taxes than their nonsmoking brothers, sisters, and neighbors.

Can you imagine the outcry and outrage if the county commissioners proposed to tax only Cook County Jail inmates and their families, married male Italians, or left-handed people, to balance their budget? Their rational would be quite similar. Since each of these groups is a minority of the voting public, singling them out for higher taxes is likely to generate less public opposition than a more broad-based tax increase.

The idea of heaping higher taxes on minority groups because they are politically weak and therefore unlikely to put up much resistance is morally outrageous and an affront to justice. Yet this is exactly what is happening to smokers in Cook County, and many of us nonsmokers are standing by allowing it to happen, thinking it is “not our fight.”

Is there an alternative? Of course there is. “We urge you [Cook County] to look at the cost side, not just the revenue side. The county does not have a revenue problem. It has an expenditure problem,” said Laurence Msall, president of the Civic Federation. In mid-December, the group offered a cost-cutting report that appears to have been ignored by all but a few county commissioners.

Everyone who lives or works in Cook County, whether they are smokers or not, ought to be outraged by the proposed cigarette tax hike. Other units of government, in Illinois and around the country, are balancing their budgets without raising taxes. Cook County ought to do the same.

Economist John Skorburg is managing editor of Budget & Tax News. His email address is [email protected].