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Op-ed column: Tax fat, not smokes

Op-ed column: Tax fat, not smokes

The quickest way to solve New York state’s budget problems would be to create a new tax on fat peopl
Op-ed column: Tax fat, not smokes
Mark Wilson/For The Sunday Gazette
Photographer: Mark Wilson/For The Sunday Gazette

The quickest way to solve New York state’s budget problems would be to create a new tax on fat people. And it would help if a fat tax included a hypocrisy surcharge for any fat senators and assembly members who voted recently to increase cigarette taxes by $1.60 a pack.

I was tempted to name some of the fat senators and assembly members who voted for the new tax on cigarettes, but I realized that would be cruel. Besides, according to every weight-height ratio chart I have seen, I too am fat.

I am not a smoker, and I think we should be doing all we can to become a tobacco-free society. But can’t we do that without making smokers pariahs? Many mornings when I drive my wife to work, I see several smokers huddled on the shoulder of the road grabbing a smoke because they are not allowed to smoke on the property named after the merciful mother of God, who they pray to on weekends to help them with their problems.

But during the week they settle for a smoke instead, what used to be a poor man’s over-the-counter cure for anxiety. They shiver in the winter and sweat in the summer, risking their lives on the little strip of no-man’s land between their jobs and the deadly stream of cars flowing by.

Health hazard

I’d like to know who decides what sins to tax and what sins not to tax. I mean, if you are going to tax something that is a health hazard, it should be obesity, or the foods, soft drinks, etc. that cause obesity. Two reports issued by the RAND Corporation in 2002, “The Effects of Obesity, Smoking, and Problem Drinking on Chronic Medical Problems and Health Care Costs” and “Does Obesity Contribute As Much to Morbidity As Poverty or Smoking?” revealed that more money is spent on health care for fat people than people who smoke or who are heavy drinkers. Only aging is a greater factor in health care costs than obesity.

Equally important is the fact that cigarette taxes fall heavily on poor people. Numerous studies have been done that show the connection between poverty and smoking. The increase in the price of cigarettes will not affect the rich much but will only cut into a poor family’s already slim budget.

I heard Gov. Paterson tell Don Weeks the other day on the radio that he would rather raise cigarette taxes than cut services. But the extra cost of cigarettes may actually increase the need for services.

The new tax, by itself, will cost a pack-a-day smoker $584 a year. If two people in a poor family smoke, the additional cost will be $1,168 a year. The new average price of $9.20 a pack means that the pack-a-day smoker will spend about $3,400 a year on cigarettes.

That may be chump change for the governor and our legislators, but it is not for a poor family. Something in the family budget will have to be eliminated in order to pay for the increased taxes or the family may require additional services from the government.

“Well, they can just quit,” says John Doe as he finishes his 740-calorie bacon and cheese Angus Third Pounder (“Just look at these, beauties. Each with one-third pound of juicy 100 percent Angus beef and thick slices of everything. Beef-lovers rejoice.”) and wipes the grease off his chin.

Not so easy

But John Doe forgets that smoking, like eating, is an addiction that is difficult to break. Our legislators also seem to forget that as they righteously sit on their fat fundaments, not able to see the similarity between someone else’s smoking and their own lard-laden meals, eaten every day at taxpayer’s expense.

“But,” says Jane Doe, “When we raise taxes on cigarettes, it encourages people to stop smoking and some do stop smoking.”

So let’s tax fatty foods, then, to get obese people to lose weight. And let’s raise the tax on cigarettes. say, to $50 a pack. If raising the tax an additional $1.60 is going to get some people to quit, why not go for a tax increase that will make virtually everyone quit?

The truth is, we know that not everyone will quit no matter how much cigarettes cost. And the truth is also that the governor and legislators are not raising the tax on cigarettes in order to help people quit smoking; they are doing it to close a budget gap caused in part by their own addiction to spending.

The last time I checked an informal, unscientific poll on The Daily Gazette’s website, exactly half of those polled felt the higher tax on cigarettes was fair. I wonder how many of those same people would have voted differently if the increased tax had been placed on fast foods, junk foods and junk drinks?

We need to cut spending in order to balance the budget. We may even need to raise some taxes. If so, let’s do it in a way that’s fair and that does not increase the burden of poverty.

Daniel T. Weaver lives in Amsterdam and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.

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