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Misleading tobacco tax arguments don't fool majority

HB 889, a bill to raise taxes on smoking and tobacco use, went up in flames on the House floor, a fraud to the end.

Its author Rep. Karen Peterson pulled out all the stops, joined in by several supporters, who perpetuated myths if not misleading information. These have been discussed elsewhere, but to summarize briefly:

  • It is about Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal. Peterson protested too much by saying it was not, despite making a crack at Jindal’s presumed future political aspirations during debate and, earlier in the day in committee on an unrelated bill, bitterly complaining to Jindal Administration officials about his opposition to this bill. It’s clear that while making Jindal look bad by trying to put him into a position to have to veto this probably was not the main motive of Peterson, who holds a party office for the Democrats, on the bill, it certainly was part of her calculation and strategy to pursue it and denials on her part are disingenuous.
  • That an increased tax would significantly reduce smoking. Several legislators who smoke or have smokers in their family talked about how the task of quitting was so difficult and disrupted family life because of the addiction of it. Incredibly, they missed the entire self-contradiction in their arguments: by claiming this was an addiction, this meant that voluntary actions by them, such as deciding whether to buy tobacco legally available, would not be affected by a tax. Only involuntary restraints, such as making it unavailable, can significantly affect this behavior if it is claimed to be truly “addictive.”
  • That it was needed to help smokers. In addition to the logical flaw noted above, the argumentation incorrectly noted the locus of control needed to overcome the addiction. Let’s get this straight: tobacco doesn’t cause addiction, it’s people who cause their own addictions. They don’t need a tax increase or even outlawing of tobacco use to quit; all they need is willpower. It is an insult to the millions who quit smoking “cold turkey” to suggest people generally are so weak that they need some kind of government help by higher taxes to do so. If you can’t quit smoking, state Reps. Harold Ritchie and Roy Burrell, it’s not government’s fault because taxes are too low that you can’t, it’s your own.
  • That the state would save money. The hypothesis here is that smoking-related illnesses cost the state more in terms of health care costs than is gathered in taxes. But in fact, the cost of treating smoking-related ailments is less than that of treating other ailments people get as a result of living longer, study after study confirms. The less smoking that occurs, the more government pays in health care expenses.
  • That the money would be used to fund health care related to smoking, implying by the previous point new money would be provided for this task. But nothing in the bill promised that, given the realities of cost-shifting and substitution in functions performed. In other words, it could allow, as the current level of taxation on tobacco does, shoveling money into the general fund for any purpose of government.
  • That it was not an “unstable” source of revenue. Since the tax is supposed to discourage behavior that raises the revenue, it should not be stable and provide diminishing returns. Supporters ran a red herring of an argument that said collections of tobacco revenues increased after the last hike, but that is meaningless when presented in isolation of other factors and did not look at the rate of consumption (which has been declining). The bill’s own fiscal note contradicted that sentiment by detailing that for every dollar the tax was raised, only about two-thirds of the revenues from it were realized, historical data showed.

    Throughout it all, supporters tried to dismiss the blatant fact of what the bill was, a tax increase. State Rep. Joe Lopinto, the only one who spoke against the bill, did not let them get away with that, despite their claims that “anti-tax” rhetoric did not have a place in the discussion. He correctly pointed out that the question was whether this tax increase was justified, and as the above arguments show, it clearly was not.

    Whether the 55 opponents accessed any, some, or all of the above in their decisions to oppose the bill makes no difference as to the outcome, a victory for those who believe government should live within it means and that spending priorities can be altered with no significant decrease in quality of services provided. For this, regardless of whether somebody uses tobacco, this bill’s defeat was a triumph for Louisiana’s people.
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