No on prop 29: cancer research is noble cause, but taxing cigarettes wrong way to go about it

One of the cardinal rules of politics: when a campaign slogan breezily declares that “The Choice is Simple,” you can be absolutely sure that choice is actually quite complicated. Exhibit A is Prop 29, one of two propositions on the Tuesday, June 5 primary election ballot for the state of California. The initiative would add a $1 dollar tax to each packet of cigarettes sold in the state, bringing the total tax to $1.87 per pack. The law stipulates that the extra money would fund research on preventing and treating tobacco-related diseases and finance programming designed to discourage cigarette use among young people.

Yes, smoking cigarettes is dangerous; there’s no question that many Californians will die this year because they sucked on a few thousand too many cancer sticks. Yes, cancer research is a noble cause; lung tumors strike smokers and non-smokers alike, and improved treatment methods would likely improve the outlook and quality of life for those suffering from all types of cancer. And yes, nobody wants their kids to pick up a dirty and life-threatening habit, especially since those under the age of 18 cannot fully comprehend the inherent risks in such a decision. These incontrovertible facts have prompted the American Lung Association, the California Cancer Research Act and even Lance Armstrong to declare the vote a no-brainer.

Not so fast, say business advocates flush with money from tobacco corporations and engaging in a broad and highly visible pushback. The measure would raise an estimated $375 million annually, yet none of this money would be used to pay down the over $10 billion debt suffocating important programs at every level of government. It also allows the money raised to be spent on research programs outside of California, even the United States. Isn’t the Golden State desperately in need of jobs? Among all the arguments against the proposition, these two may be among the weakest; of course, they are also the most frequently utilized. Like many sprawling industries, Big Tobacco can always be counted on to shoot itself in the foot.

It’s a shame, because there are many reasons to oppose this ill-advised initiative. For one thing, it creates a new administrative body responsible for doling out the dough, imposing an entirely unnecessary new layer of bureaucracy on a state already smothered in it. The inefficiency of big government is one of the principal reasons the state remains mired in debt. If funding cancer research is really an important goal (and it is), why should we trust the hundreds of millions of dollars it requires to officials who have proven so inept at similar projects in the past?

Then there’s the perennial problem of the black market. Yes, California has one of the lowest cigarette taxes in the nation. So let’s look at where that cigarette tax is the highest: New York. In the Empire State, a booming black market for cigarettes has emerged as a way for consumers to avoid the sky-high $4.35 tax per pack. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) reported in 2010 that, shortly after the new tax was implemented, legal cigarette sales plummeted 27 percent, shorting the government of nearly $20 million per month. Did the tax finally convince smokers to kick their nasty habit? According to the same report, millions of smokers merely turned to black market providers, with 7.3 million packs smuggled from cheaper states likely distributed each month. Proponents of Prop 29 might in fact be worsening California’s debt crisis and providing less money for research than they realize—to say nothing of the inevitable crime which accompanies a burgeoning black market.

The tax will also fall hardest on the least fortunate in our society. Stock traders needing to soothe their nerves after a frenetic day of trading will have no problem ponying up an extra $1 to support their nasty habit, but a harried single mother working at McDonalds will discover the small solace found in her pack of Marlboros is now unaffordable. Forced to make difficult choices, many will find it impossible to ignore their addiction and may be forced into government welfare programs as a way to make ends meet. This will not only affect low-income smokers, but everyone who pays taxes or relies on government support in California.

Finally, Prop 29 represents a slippery slope towards the proverbial “Nanny State,” where government ceases to be our protector and becomes our babysitter. Again, New York provides a perfect example. An exorbitant tax on cigarettes might have seemed a no-brainer, but did anyone expect it would lead to a ban on the sale of large-sized soft drinks? Because that is exactly what New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed last week when he intrduced a measure making the sale of any sweetened beverages over 16 ounces in size illegal in places such as restaurants, movie theaters and coffee shops. “We’re not taking away anybody’s right to do anything,” says Nanny Bloomberg. “We’re simply forcing you to understand that you have to make the conscious decision to go from one cup to another cup.” The dangers of cigarettes are already well-known (they’re printed right on the pack), and should well-informed adults decide to take a calculated risk while pursuing a pastime they enjoy, who is the government to tell them otherwise?

We all have our vices. The CDC estimates that just 14 percent of Californians are regular smokers. But how many enjoy a drink now and again, or maybe a little puff on the cannabis (of course you have a legitimate medical condition)? And which of us doesn’t occasionally indulge in a 32-ounce Slurpee on a scorching summer’s day?

To paraphrase Martin Niemöller, “First they came for the cigarette smokers, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a cigarette smoker. Then they came for the beer drinkers, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a beer drinker. Then they came for my large soda, and there was no one left to speak out for me.”

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