Treating smokers like ATM machines |

Treating smokers like ATM machines

Jim ScrippsColumnTo kick off 2006 the right way, California in its typical California way now has a ballot initiative circulating that promises, finally, to make Californians healthy – whether they like it or not.The proposed California constitutional amendment would impose an additional 7.5-cent tax on cigarettes as a way to raise revenue for such necessary spending as “enforcement of tobacco-related laws,” “nonprofit clinics” and “health insurance for eligible children.” All it needs is 598,105 signatures to get on the ballot. There are easily enough brain dead Californians to exceed this threshold – just look at last November’s ballot initiatives, which were all rejected by voters.Seven and a half cents doesn’t sound like a lot of money, and it wouldn’t be if the tax was per pack, but it’s not – it’s per cigarette, or $1.50 per pack. For a typical one-pack-a-day smoker that’s almost an additional $550 a year. But smokers are smelly, so that’s perfectly fair.It is reasonable to assume the motivation behind the initiative is to get people to stop smoking – or at least buy their cigarettes over the Internet. But that overestimates the goodwill of the “Coalition for a Healthy California,” the petition’s circulators.The real motivation, as usual, is the almighty dollar. The estimated annual revenue for the program is $1.4 billion by the 2006-2007 budget cycle. Like with the tobacco settlement a decade ago, the money will probably go toward spending that isn’t necessarily health-related, like testing cows for methane release (they really do it at UC Davis) or a new $5 billion Bay Bridge.According to figures from a “smoker’s rights” Web site sponsored by R.J. Reynolds, if passed the ballot measure would almost triple the current California excise tax of 87 cents per pack (the tax raised more than $1 billion for pork barrel spending in 2004). Add that to the 39 cent-per-pack federal tax (raising more than $7.5 billion in 2004), and we are talking about some serious taxes. Canada-style taxes. Of the $4 you might spend for a pack of cigarettes, $2.74 is actually for the pack of cigarettes (not counting sales tax!). The rest is for the government to play with. If this new tax becomes law, tack on another $1.50 per pack. That’s almost half taxes.There aren’t many times when you’d want to get on board with the tobacco companies, but this time you almost have to feel sorry for them. Smoking is widely known to be a dangerous habit with a high rate of negative health effects, but that’s no reason to treat the companies – and smokers – like an ATM machine for politicians. What if you did that to the jelly bean manufacturers? (Diabetes? Tooth decay?) Would Californians stand for that? I don’t think so.The next time you see a someone holding a clipboard, tracking you down in a supermarket parking lot, ask yourself, “Is this person part of the problem, or part of the solution?” If they’re gathering signatures for a petition, you know the answer.Jim Scripps, former editor of the Sierra Sun, is the managing editor of the Tahoe Daily Tribune, the Sierra Sun’s sister paper in South Lake Tahoe. He can be reached at