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Toppling Big Tobacco

Michael J. Ring

This summer, the tobacco industry has bombarded the airwaves with advertisements in which "regular" Americans speak about their opposition to the tobacco tax. We are told and led to infer the tax will result in more money for politicians' pet projects, that it will be an onus on working-class people, that it is another advance of big-government on personal liberty. While any political advertisement needs to be taken with a grain of salt, there isn't enough chloride dissolved in the oceans to rectify the tobacco industry's statements with the truth.

The massive campaign by the tobacco industry is aimed at keeping cigarette prices low and accessible, and the product unregulated. Unfortunately, the industry has already won critical victories in Washington this year. It killed a bill sponsored by Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) that would have enacted a national tobacco settlement because it included a $1.10 per pack tax on cigarettes. Now, it is continuing its multi-million dollar advertising campaign and lobbying efforts in Washington to ensure that the additional tax does not resurface.

What the industry knows and doesn't want to admit is that price increases will drastically reduce smoking, especially by teens. A panel drafted by the National Cancer Institute in 1993 stated "a substantial increase in tobacco excise taxes may be the single most effective measure for decreasing tobacco consumption." The Treasury Department recently reported that a similar increase in price to the one proposed by Senator McCain would reduce teen smoking by 29 percent. In Canada, teen smoking plummeted as cigarette prices increased throughout the 1980s, but, after recent falls in prices, smoking in that nation has crept upward again.

Internal tobacco industry memos, obtained by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, confirm that the industry knows that price increases stop teen smoking. The only reason to oppose these increases, of course, is that tobacco companies are not really interested in stopping teen smoking at all. They want to hook children young to generate a future customer base. They're not bothered when 3,000 kids become regular smokers each day. It means they have gained 3,000 additional customers.

The claim that this is a tax increase on the "working class" is ludicrous. This is not like raising the income tax or the sales tax on the necessities of life. This is increasing the price of a harmful and dangerous product, one containing hundreds of known toxins and carcinogens harmful to those who use it and even those who live and work in proximity to those who use it. This price increase will not be denying the working people food, clothing, or shelter. It will, however, stop teens from developing a dangerous and addictive habit.

For the tobacco industry to float the concept that enactment of the tobacco settlement would mean more money to fund the pork projects of congressmen is laughable. This industry, after all, contributes to the influences of special interests in government like no other. The millions that are spent in lobbying politicians by the tobacco industry every year provide dividends for it, most recently in buying votes against the McCain bill. There is a clear pattern between tobacco contributions and pro-tobacco voting.

That being said, it is important that tax revenue raised by any tobacco price increase go toward cancer research, smoking prevention, or other health-related issues. However, it was the Republican leadership with its litany of delays and riders which sought to divert attention from these important health issues. Americans want to see real, clear tobacco reform proposals passed, not a weak bill hampered and hindered by amendments which seems to be the goal of the Republican leadership.

While increasing taxes and regulations are indeed big-government solutions to tobacco problems, this is a situation where such resolutions are entirely appropriate. The industry has failed to regulate itself in a responsible manner. It has for years and years pursued children, seeking to hook them on a deadly and addictive habit. It has tried to skirt responsibility for its products and its actions. Big tobacco is many times more frightening than big government, and only Washington has the size, power, and control to step in and take the necessary steps to further stem the destruction propagated by Big Tobacco.

As the mid-term elections near, we must stand as a society against the message of Big Tobacco and stand for candidates in favor of desperately needed reform and regulations. Only then will the industry and its congressional pawns finally hear the message that America is tired of the industry's false promises and reassurances and wants true legislative action.