Taxing Matters

In a North Carolina newspaper not long ago-a North Carolina newspaper – I  actually read  an  editorial urging Tar Heel legislators to raise the state tax on cigarettes. What is the world coming to?

The state’s present tax, I gather, is the lowest in the nation. You would think North Carolinians would join in praising their politicians’ restraint, in this one matter at least. But, no, here was a newspaper editor urging that the tax be increased from two cents a pack to a nickle or even a dime, a 300,400, or 500 percent increase!

He argued that the state needed the money. But, of course, if people stop smoking, there would go the anticipat­ ed revenue-poof! Up in smoke. So the editorial pointed out that a 10 cent tax introduced in Norfolk did not affect consumption at all.

In other words, there isn’t even a public-health rationale for it: it’s gouging, pure and simple. Tobacco growers needn’t worry: smokers, already accustomed to abuse in public places, guilty and half-apologetic and probably not well-smokers will meekly and quietly ante up whatever is required of them.

Now the newspaper in which I read this proposal is proud of its liberalism. Surely its editorialist has merely over­ looked the fundamental truth that cigarettes don’t pay taxes – people do. (That ought to be a bumper sticker, if it isn’t already.) The burden of a cigarette tax wouldn’t fall on the yuppies of the Research Triangle – no, it would hit poor high-school dropouts, folks for whom tobacco offers one of the few consolations in an otherwise pretty dreary life. This newspaper vigorously opposes the sales tax on food (or did until a new Republican governor pro­ posed to repeal it). Well, the cigarette tax would be like that food tax, only more so: regressive.

If taxing people for doing something that’s bad for them won’t make them stop, and if it’s not an equitable way to raise revenue, there’s only one reason to do it.

Vengeance. Nonsmokers suspect and ex-smokers know that smokers enjoy it, and some of them resent that. This sort of puritanism isn’t a worthy basis for public policy. In any case, the Surgeon General keeps telling us that smokers will pay for their pleasure soon enough. Some of them are sick already: does this newspaper want to impoverish the sick? Surely not.

I have a better idea. How about a tax on Volvos? That would be a relatively benign, progressive tax. Hardly any­ body but MD’s can afford the things anyway, and they could easily cough up another thousand dollars or so per vehicle. Just another couple of appendectomies for them. It would even add to the exclusivity of the thing.

After all, nobody has to drive a Volvo. I know, because I went cold turkey a couple of years ago after 16 years. It’s just a matter of willpower.

But (I hear someone say) Volvos aren’t bad for you the way cigarettes are. Well, I don’t know: has that been proven? There’s no conclusive evidence yet that they’re any worse than other automobiles for those who drive them, but they do pose a hazard to the spiritual health of others in the vicinity. I know I violate the Tenth Commandment every time I see one.

Moreover, buying a Volvo is detrimental to the U.S. balance-of­ payments. This might not be so bad if the money were going to some deserving country that would otherwise be a candidate for foreign aid, but money spent on Volvos goes directly to one of the most obnoxious nations in the world, an overdeveloped country, with a busybody government that tells its citizens how to raise their children and its international betters· how to run their foreign policies. If I didn’t feel sorry for the Norwegians, I’d say let the Russians have Sweden. But I’m getting off the subject…

There is one other argument for taxing cigarettes. It is so specious that it’s barely heard at all in North Carolina, but readers from other states may have encountered it. North Carolina’s present tax is said to be so much lower than other states’ – notably New York’s – that various unsavory characters find it profitable to smuggle North Carolina cigarettes into New York. Raising Carolina’s taxes, it’s said, would cut off this trade. Well, sure, but so would lowering New York’s. Why should Southern smokers pay for the avarice of Northern politicians? Why should our legislators protect New Yorkers from the consequences of their greed? Let them pay to enforce their own silly laws. I would love to see customs stations on the George Washington Bridge. Maybe we could set some up down here, while we’re at it. There are some New York products I’d like to keep out.            cc