Editorial: Let’s not cough up more taxes

Ever since the surgeon general told us so in 1964, most of us have known that smoking tobacco endangers our health. In fact, it kills — so much so that a decades-longpublic policy debate has raged over whether government should protect us from ourselves or shield nonsmokers from those dwindling few who light up in our midst.

One thing’s for sure: The anti-smoking Proposition 86 — and we’re not even sure we can call it well-intentioned — does not serve the public as advertised. Perhaps a warning should be printed on the ballot next to it.

That’s because the initiative was written to benefit medical professionals, mostly hospitals. The additional tax revenue it expects to exact from the sale of a pack of cigarettes would fund various hospitals’ programs to treat lung cancer and other tobacco-related diseases. When a proposition’s language includes an exemption from antitrust prosecution, in this case of the hospitals themselves, you know that the sponsors are up to something fishy.

California’s declining number of smokers already are taxed steeply, 50 cents a pack, this owing to the Rob Reiner initiative enacted in 2004. The revenues are doled out to childhood schooling projects determined by a special citizen commission. That is travesty enough, given that the aim of this apparatus is to produce fewer smokers.

The same contradiction inheres in this newest attempt to impose a “sin tax,” a 300 percent increase if the sponsors prevail, on Californians who engage in disapproved behavior. Do we want fewer smokers or more revenue? Though you can capture some revenue from a breed you intend to make extinct, you cannot really project expanded coffers for sustainable programs.

The state’s legislative analyst, making a good-faith effort, calculates revenues of “$2.1 billion by 2007-09, declining slightly annually thereafter.” Perhaps, but a dynamic analysis would have to employ psychological and physiological tools to determine how many smokers would change their behavior — again, the reputed objective — if they were forced to cough up (sorry) the new taxes.

The new funding, according to the measure’s sponsors, would oversee the proliferation of anti-smoking programs, including furnishing children with health insurance. So when the last smoker crumples the last pack, who sustains these programs, by then probably transmuted into something more generically health-related? Will the sponsors warrant that it won’t be generic taxpayers?

Even without these dubious fiscal arrangements, Prop. 86 would intensify the already vigorous black market in cigarettes. That is why law enforcement officers — excluding those few bad apples susceptible to payoffs — are steadfast in their opposition. We can’t afford to deploy them in more anti-smuggling operations.

If Prop. 86’s authors are indeed well-intentioned, and not manipulating the initiative process as suspected, then they’re awfully naïve. Voters who don’t want to be manipulated or burdened by such naiveté should reject this one.

Part of the San Francisco Examiner's 2006 Election Coverage.

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