Thursday, April 02, 2009

A Sign of the Times

If you’re not a smoker, you may not have noticed that the federal government played an unfunny April Fools Day joke on those of us who are. A new federal tax on tobacco products – ready-made cigarettes, cigars, and loose tobacco (for those of us who make our own) – went into affect yesterday. The reason for this tax: to fund the national State Children’s Health Insurance Plan (SCHIP).

The tax is also supposed to encourage smokers to quit smoking, which begs the question: if smokers did stop smoking en masse because of this new tax, how would SCHIP be funded?

For smokers, the dollars-and-cents repercussion of the increase is this: the $.39-per-pack tax went up to $1.01 per pack, thereby adding more than $10 to the price of a carton, which in New York City (thanks to already-extant state and city taxes) was $85 to $90 and is now $95 to $105. The loose tobacco, which was a well-kept-secret at about $15 for a one-pound bag, is now a public obscenity at $40 to $45 per pound, because the $1.10 per pound tax went up to $24.78 per pound – an increase of more than 2,100%.

If this strikes non-smokers as a good and reasonable thing, all I can say is: wait until some legal, adult vice you indulge in is penalized beyond all reason in the name of the greater good. You too may be tempted to yell “foul!” and complain about taxation without representation. But until then, you can smile smugly about us nasty smokers getting it but good.

However, here’s what you don’t get: it will be a miracle if SCHIP really gets funded. The New York State Lottery is supposed to fund education. New Yorkers spend billions on the lottery. See what good school systems we have?

The other, equally important element is this: a great many smokers will not be able to afford this tax increase. But they won’t stop smoking; they’ll look for black-market alternatives to buying cigarettes and other tobacco products “legally.” The government has just launched a new criminal industry. Good work!

So watch out for new underground “dealers” in your midst, coming to a neighborhood near you faster than you can say “this sucks!” And if your kids are uninsured for health care? I suggest you get insurance for them real soon.

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