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Taxing a House of Cards

by WALTER BRASCH

My wife is a smoker. Except for one year when she quit, she’s been a smoker since she was about 18. But she’s cut back, from as many as three packs a day to just three cigarettes. And, she now smokes outside the house.

At various times, she was asked to show an ID. When in her 20s she saw it as an annoyance. By her 30s and 40s, it was a compliment. Now it’s just downright annoying.

The law restricts persons under 18 years of age from buying or smoking cigarettes. My wife understands why she must be “carded.”

Yesterday she was carded when she wanted to buy two lighters. The sweet lady at the grocery checkout counter said that the chain store is carding everyone who buys lighters. Something about a juvenile who used a lighter and accidentally set his house on fire.

The law doesn’t say a person must be at least 18 to buy a cigarette lighter. But, the reasoning is that people buy cigarette lighters to—well—light cigarettes. Therefore, cigarette lighters—which can be used for many things other than to light up—also must be controlled. So, every adult, from the 20s to the gray-haired elderly, will also be “carded” when they buy lighters.

If this restrictive and selective enforcement continues, we might soon see stores carding people who buy cups, because they could be used to hold beer. Anyone who buys watermelons would be carded since plugged, spiked, and corked watermelons are a delightful summer treat. Jello, once promoted by all-American “dad” Bill Cosby, would be suspect, since there aren’t many college parties without Jello shots.

Unlike the sale of cigarettes and liquor, there is no age restriction on most foods. So, various health-nut organizations and not-so-bright legislators have decided to tax foods they don’t think are acceptable. Several legislators have tried, but so far have failed, to enact legislation that would tax high-calorie foods. New York Gov. David Patterson wants to levy a 15 percent tax on any juice or drink except diet sodas, bottled water, coffee, tea, and milk.

Eventually, we’ll see a special “obesity tax” placed against anything sold at a fast food restaurant.

When you break through the smoke and mirrors, governments really don’t care about anyone’s health. They do care about ways to generate revenue. Gov. Patterson readily acknowledges that the “obesity tax” in New York would generate about $400 million additional revenue. New York also leads the nation in cigarette taxes. A smoker in New York City pays about $9 per pack, which includes a 39 cents federal tax, a $2.75 state tax, a $1.50 city tax, plus an 8 percent sales tax on top of everything else. Chicago is second, with taxes totaling $3.66 a pack. States and the federal government collect about $26 billion a year in cigarette taxes, according to a New York Times report in August 2008.

Liquor taxes aren’t meant to make anyone healthy, except the state economy. In California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed a five cent a drink tax that, had the legislature not tabled the suggestion, would have raised $600 million a year. Overall, the federal government collected more than $9 billion in taxes, while states collected an additional $6 billion, according to a comprehensive analysis published in June 2007 by the National Center for Policy Analysis.

With budgets being pumped up by numerous “sin taxes,” it won’t be long until someone figures out they need not only to card buyers of cigarette lighters, cups, watermelons, and Jello, but that there also needs to be special excise taxes upon these products as well.

WALTER BRASCH is the author of Sinking the Ship of State: The Presidency of George W. Bush.

[The assistance of Rosemary R. Brasch is appreciated. WALTER BRASCH’s latest book is Sinking the Ship of State: The Presidency of George W. Bush, available at amazon.com, bn.com, and most bookstores. You may contact Dr. Brasch at brasch@bloomu.edu, or through his website, www.walterbrasch.com]

 

Walter Brasch is an award-winning social issues journalist. His latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania, an analysis of the history, economics, and politics of fracking, as well as its environmental and health effects.

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