Dan Walters

Opinion: Smoking tax hike would punish poor

Camel, a Reynolds American brand, and Newport, a Lorillard brand, cigarettes are displayed for sale, Tuesday, July 15, 2014, in Doral, Fla.
Camel, a Reynolds American brand, and Newport, a Lorillard brand, cigarettes are displayed for sale, Tuesday, July 15, 2014, in Doral, Fla. AP

Let’s stipulate that smoking cigarettes is a dirty, dangerous and expensive habit, and we’d all be better off if no one did it.

That said, it’s not by any means the only noxious personal practice in modern society, nor perhaps the worst one. And a new proposal to raise California’s taxes on cigarettes by another $2 per pack raises a question: How far can government go to oppress otherwise legal behavior it deems to be unacceptable without violating personal liberties?

“The power to tax involves the power to destroy,” Chief Justice John Marshall observed in a 1819 in ruling on a tax in Maryland, and what was true then is perhaps even more so today, given the wide array of taxes and fees levied by federal, state and local governments.

The health advocacy groups that are proposing the new cigarette tax increase aren’t shy about wanting to eliminate smoking in California, citing the costs of smoking-related diseases. They evidently believe that raising taxes by another $2 per pack will move in that direction.

However, the fact is that California already has the second-lowest level of smoking of any state, surpassed only by Utah, where the anti-smoking Mormon Church is a powerful influence. Utah’s cigarette taxes are higher than California’s but lower than those of states with higher rates of smoking, such as New York.

Those data indicate that smoking is not directly tied to taxation but to societal pressures. California’s cigarette taxes are now below the norm – lower than those of 32 other states – but it has a very low level of smoking because as a society, California doesn’t like it.

Given that climate, one might wonder, who is still smoking? Interestingly, they are mostly poor and non-white, according to data from state health officials.

Overall, about 15 percent of California adults smoke, and the rate has been dropping for years. Among white, affluent Californians who once considered it chic, a la “Mad Men,” it’s now close to nonexistent, while among poor and/or non-white residents, it’s above average, and their rate of decline has been lower.

Were cigarette taxes to be raised sharply – from 87 cents a pack to $2.87 – advocates evidently assume it would be, proportionately, a very big hit on low-income smokers and thus would discourage them from continuing to inhale.

But would it? Or would it encourage them to deprive themselves and their families of vital consumer goods, such as food, to finance their habits, or perhaps make California a more lucrative venue for cigarette smugglers and black-market suppliers?

Belatedly, we now understand that addictions require medical and psychological therapy, not punishment. But in proposing hefty new taxes on cigarettes, their advocates are seeking financial punishment for those unfortunately addicted to nicotine.

Call The Bee’s Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, sacbee.com/dan-walters. Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee.