A Good Tax

The state of Virginia recently had a chance to make a real contribution to our nation's health--and blew it. Virginia considered a bill raising the state tax on cigarettes from 2 and a half cents to 20 cents a pack. The national average is 24 cents. But the bill was rejected. When you consider that tobacco is Virginia's largest cash crop, the political motivations are obvious. But it's also obvious that smoking is a major cause of health problems. And one of the easiest ways to reduce the rate of smoking is by imposing high taxes on cigarettes. California took the plunge a few years ago, raising the tax on cigarettes to 35 cents a pack. And just 3 years later, the percentage of Californians who smoke declined 17 percent. The same tactic has been used successfully in Canada. Canadians used to be heavier smokers per capita than Americans. But no longer. Canada started taxing cigarettes heavily, with federal taxes nearly $2 per pack and provincial taxes an additional $3.50. That's over $5.00 per pack! And what happened? Over the past 3 years, the consumption of cigarettes in Canada has gone down a whopping 25 percent. In part, that drop is due to Canada's strict labelling requirements. Health warnings must cover 20 percent of the front and the back of each pack. And most cigarette advertising has been banned. Compare that to our own country, where every time you step outside you probably see at least one billboard glorifying the joys of smoking. Unfortunately, those most affected are young people--the age when tobacco addictions usually take hold. Take, for example, the hugely successful ad campaign by Camel cigarettes, featuring Old Joe, the cartoon camel, who looks like a slick city dude. A study of young children found that the cartoon camel has already become more familiar than the Cheerios emblem. An astonishing 91 percent of 6-year-olds recognized Old Joe--about as many as recognized Mickey Mouse. That might explain why Camel has seen a sharp increase in the number of young people buying their cigarettes. The headlines have been screaming at us lately about the crisis in our health care system, and maybe it's time to treat smoking like the major health problem it really is. Smoking is the leading cause of preventable death. It kills 1,100 Americans every day. And it costs $52 billion every year in health care, insurance, and lost productivity. To hear some politicians talk, the only way to reduce health care costs is with a federal program, which would create another huge bureaucracy and cost taxpayers billions of dollars. But I've got a much simpler idea. Let the government do what Canada has done: jack up the taxes on cigarettes to $5.00 per pack. It would be a system where everybody wins. It would bring money in that can be used for research and health care costs. And it would create a strong negative deterrent. Just like in Canada, many people would quit smoking altogether. The end result would be less lung cancer and heart disease, which would alleviate our health care costs. If only Congress--for once--would vote against a special interest group and for the good of all. Old Joe, the cartoon camel, wouldn't be smiling any more. But the rest of us certainly would.


Chuck Colson


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