"Fifty million dead. Billions sickened. Economic losses in trillions." Newspaper headlines from a long-feared pandemic? A terrorist attack? A natural disaster? No, these will be the headlines on Dec. 31, 2099, documenting the effects of tobacco use in the U.S. during this century. But these headlines need not occur. We know how to prevent the deaths, illnesses, and economic costs of tobacco use—and the road to doing so begins at the state level.
How do we know this? Because we have been there: California in the 1980s; Massachusetts and Florida in the 1990s; Maine, New York, and several other states in the past decade. Each has devoted modest to substantial funds to establish and maintain comprehensive tobacco control programs, and these programs worked. Where funding was adequate and maintained over a number of years, fewer youths started using tobacco, more adults quit, state populations became healthier, and tobacco-related health-care costs went down.
Yet, only one state, North Dakota, is now funding a tobacco control program at levels recommended by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, despite that data have demonstrated the effectiveness of the state-based tobacco control programs—from both a health and an economic perspective. Yes, economic times are tough, but these programs pay off. They produce revenue for needed state projects and they provide for the health of the states’ citizens. This is the job we expect our governments to do, and citizens should require that they do so.
Tobacco doesn’t pay tax. People do.
If all government and anti-smokers care about is the cash value of taxing people who smoke, it amounts to human trafficking of smokers. It’s abuse and manipulation, and debates on the subject of tobacco-tax revenue historically disregard actual human beings.
Tobacco control—with taxation as a tactic—is people control. The anti-smoking faction’s intent is to rescind the right of free will to choose. The adage that "the power to tax is the power to destroy" is consciously applied.
Because the tobacco tax is inescapable, however, many Americans would reason we want its use linked to anti-smoking programs. But pardon us informed, independent-minded smokers if we’d prefer it stay out of the hands of intolerant people who use it to assault our autonomy as adults. (And to those who say we need the smoking-cessation programs to alleviate the cost of smoke-related illnesses, let me remind you that the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement was intended to cover the alleged health-care costs of smokers, so any further argument regarding taxes for that purpose is to support a form of double jeopardy.)
Consider, too, that Congress awarded the Food & Drug Administration oversight of tobacco. Once the FDA implements all provisions of the Family Smoking Prevention & Tobacco Control Act, it’ll eliminate the need for state and other local smoking-cessation programs. Cutting out the redundancy will save states millions of dollars, relieving taxpayers of having to cover budget gaps with higher property and sales taxes.
"Denormalize" smoking, opponents say. But what they’re really doing is denormalizing civil liberties to accomplish that end. No benefit alleged by tobacco control supersedes our right to be left alone.Opinions and conclusions expressed in the BusinessWeek.com Debate Room do not necessarily reflect the views of Bloomberg BusinessWeek, BusinessWeek.com, or Bloomberg.
Please send us your ideas for new Debate Room topics. If you're an academic, association officer, or other industry expert and would like to write a Debate Room essay, send us a query. Questions? See the