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Thursday 13 February 2003

Big Anti-Tobacco and Reality

According to the Washington Post,

A federal health commission on smoking is recommending that the Bush administration raise the federal tax on cigarettes from 39 cents to $2.39 a pack, arguing that the huge increase could prevent 3 million premature deaths and help 5 million Americans quit smoking within a year.

At least half of the $28 billion expected to be generated by the tax increase would be invested in anti-tobacco efforts such as a national quit line, a major advertising campaign and insurance coverage for federal workers seeking treatment. [emphasis added]

Which means that this is a $14 billion tax hike, trying to use another $14 billion tax hike and anti-smoking hysteria as a fig leaf.

The proposals, which the 28-member panel endorsed unanimously Tuesday evening, reflect a dramatic shift in political winds as the tobacco industry’s clout wanes and tobacco-related illnesses climb, several health experts said.

But the problem is that tobacco-related illness is defined as any illness a smoker has. A tobacco-related death is the death of a smoker. The statistics are so convoluted that I have not been able to verify whether the Big Anti-Tobacco counts accidental deaths as “tobacco-related”.

But I don’t have to. “Several health experts”, says the Post, say that this is a “significant shift” as “tobacco-related illnesses climb”. Climb to a fever pitch of hysteria, maybe. The American Lung Association says that “The rate of lung cancer cases appears to be dropping among white and African-American men in the United States, while it continues to rise among both white and African-American women.”

The Lung Association also says that the rate of incidence for emphysema, chronic bronchitis, and pediatric asthma declined 5.4%, 1.4%, and .3% respectively from 1998 to 1999, the most recent period for which statistics have been compiled. Big Anti-Tobacco’s own statistics contradict their public statements.

Yet we need a new $28 billion tax to combat these rising trends.

[Ron] Davis, the former chief of the tobacco division at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [and a member of the panel that made the report], said the U.S. tax on cigarettes as a percentage of retail price is far less than it is in other industrialized nations.

(Just like U.S. taxes on nearly everything.)

“Clearly, raising taxes on tobacco is a good thing from a health standpoint,” he said, pointing to high disease rates in America. “The fact that we undertax cigarettes means we have more smoking and more death and disease associated with smoking.”

Which would explain why the United States has the thirty-first smokingest population of women in the world, and the seventy-seventh smokingest men, according to these stats from the WHO (Warning: PDF). Americans smoke less than people in such famously low-tax jurisdictions as Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Canada, the UK, France, Austria, Italy, and Switzerland.

It’s not about health. It’s not about protecting people from themselves, as odious as even that is. It’s about a noisy bunch of people who have decided that they do not like smoking, and who have taken it upon themselves to tell other people what they may and may not do.

In addition to telling owners of bars and restaurants whether they may allow smoking in their establishments, Big Anti-Tobacco is determined to make smoking more and more expensive (see this for a hint to their real reason for raising taxes). This is probably a wise decision, as a large part of Big Anti-Tobacco’s agenda requires a lot of law enforcement. Those taxes will — already do — result in a black market, though, and in cigarettes being sold by unsavory elements, as happened in Canada when our good friends there had sky-high taxes on tobacco. It could be that this — the creation of a black market — is the ultimate goal of Big Anti-Tobacco, for once you can put an ad on TV linking smoking with terrorism, further meaningful debate will be impossible.

Why, though, do these people hate smoking so much? They say that the problem is “secondhand smoke”. Never mind that there’s no reliable scientific evidence that secondhand smoke is dangerous; we’ll accept for the moment that it’s simply annoying. Fine. Why not simply mandate that places that allow smoking be equipped with effective air-cleaners? In Las Vegas, people smoke everywhere. I think you can even smoke in the elevators there, but there’s no smell of smoke anywhere. The casinos want to make sure that both smokers and nonsmokers have no reason to leave, so they solve the problem in a market-friendly way.

Not everyone enjoys the profit margins of the gambling industry, of course, and some businesses would have to ban smoking rather than spend the money on air cleaners. But this approach would at least make Big Anti-Tobacco’s position — that it’s about health, not social engineering — more plausible.

If you don’t like something, by all means say so. If you want to ban other people from doing something that you don’t like, say that as well. And if you think that something is unhealthy, let the world know. But if you can’t make arguments without contradicting your other arguments, it’s probably best to just sit quietly.

Posted by tino at 15:00 13.02.03
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I googled onto your site trying to find out who’s on and who appointed the federal health commission on smoking. If I find it I’ll let you know. Bookmarked this site. Nice job!

Posted by: dennis wagner at February 18, 2003 11:53 AM

Thanks for the compliment.

I have not been able to find out much about the commission myself; what little information there is online is pretty old. That I assume to be the commission’s official web page at http://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/ICSH/ doesn’t seem to have been updated since August, 2001.

Posted by: Tino at February 18, 2003 05:22 PM