Cancer sticks ease the budget blues

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07/15/2010 12:00 AM |

The State of New York, a world leader in commerce, culture and progressive thinking, balances its budget on the backs of drug addicts.

In case you missed it — and if you’re a smoker you certainly didn’t — the state recently added another $1.60 tax to a pack of cigarettes. On July 1, Albany started taking a $4.35 bite out of the cost of a pack of Camels, Marlboros or whatever. That’s the highest cigarette tax in the country, and it pushes the price of a pack up to the $10 range, higher in NYC.

The American Lung Association and other anti-smoking groups hail the new tax, saying the beyond ridiculous prices (my words, not theirs) will help turn folk away from tobacco. That’s a nice warm and fuzzy outlook and may be true to some extent, but it completely misses the point.

The state is fully aware of tobacco’s addictive, lethal legacy, and yet it counts on the big bucks taken in each year through cigarette taxes. Sure, some of that revenue goes to smoking cessation programs. That’s good PR, I suppose, and may assuage some guilt. But as a matter of fiscal policy, New York wants people to light up and keep on puffing.

You see, the Empire State ain’t doing so well financially. In fact it’s $9 billion in the red. The capital bean-counters expect — which really means hope — the additional cigarette taxes will generate another $440 million. We’re talking in the neighborhood of a half-billion dollars above what the state already sucks out of smokers’ wallets every year.

And yet the state health department reports that smoking kills 25,500 New Yorkers each year and 2,500 die from secondhand smoke. Another 570,000 will come down with serious smoking-related illnesses and the department projects that 389,000 kids now under 17 will eventually die from smoking.

Yeah, well, not before doing their part to balance the budget.

To be fair, our esteemed state is just one of many across the country with a huge fiscal stake in disease and death, Don’t forget the feds, who in the spring enacted a 62-cent hike — the largest ever — in federal cigarette taxes. That tacks on another dollar to the per pack price. Golly, with all the billions those taxes have raked in over the years and all the money set aside for anti-smoking programs, shouldn’t we be a tobacco-free nation by now?

Why not impose a $4.35 state or federal tax on a gallon of milk or a gallon of gas? That’s easy. At that price, consumer demand would vanish faster than a tobacco lobbyist at session’s end. People can curtail driving and drink less milk, but smokers can’t simply stop smoking, can they? They’re hooked, the state and federal governments know it and count on it. They got ’em by the filters.

No, I don’t smoke. Never have and never will. Nor do I have stock in Phillip Morris. What I have is some less than pleasant firsthand experience with smoking’s deadly effects.

My Dad, Charlie Kelly, was a robust guy, affable and outgoing. He also smoked three packs a day and died of lung cancer at 46. I was 14. While burning burgers at my eight-grade graduation barbecue he talked about losing weight. Surgeons removed a lung that September, he spent Christmas in the hospital and died in a portable bed in our living room the following Father’s Day morning. He couldn’t have weighed more than 90 pounds.

He was born in 1922 and served in WWII and I’m guessing most of the GIs smoked. Still, the deck was stacked against him. It’s been 42 years since his death, and what’s the official response from Albany and Washington to a health-care crisis of unimaginable scope and size? Requiring cigarette packs to carry a two-word warning, “smoking kills.” No kidding.

How do they sleep at night?

Tim Kelly is the editor of The Suffolk Times. He can be reached at [email protected] or 631-298-3200, ext. 238.