Smoke and Mirrors

Hawaii smokers saw the price of cigarettes go up this year when Congress more than doubled the federal tax on a pack to $1.01. They should prepare for higher prices soon. The U.S. Senate today voted to give the FDA regulatory power over tobacco. As the New York Times reports, “First, the FDA would hire a director and staff and find space for a new Tobacco Center, to be financed by industry fees. The projected budget is $85 million the first year, $450 million by the third year and more than $700 million in 10 years.”

Industry fees? Do we expect Altria to cough up $700 million out of its office coffee fund? No, “industry fees” will be generated by price increases passed on to consumers who, in the case of smokers, already tend to be the poorest Americans. And what will we get for this expansion of federal government and regressive taxation? The Congressional Budget Office predicts the expanded regulation will reduce youth smoking by 11 percent adult smoking by 2 percent.

Two percent. Only about 20 percent Americans smoke now and Congress is passing around high-fives because it might whittle that down to 18 percent?

I’ve written before about the unhealthy, co-dependent relationship between government and tobacco. This is a perfect example of what I mean. Set aside for the moment that a 2 percent reduction in adult smoking seems like very little bang for more than half a billion dollar annual budget. That’s just typical government ineffectiveness.

No, what frustrates me here is the hypocritical gap between the moralizing claims made by the Senate, and the actual outcome of their legislation. The pro-regulators argued that we need the FDA to oversee tobacco because cigarettes are nothing less than Certain Death Wrapped in Thin White Paper, the only products that, the New York Times points out “eventually kill half their regular users.”

Wow. That sounds pretty bad. That’s, like, hundreds of thousands of dead consumers. Something must be done! What exactly? Well, the Senate wants to give the FDA authority to regulate cigarettes, but not to ban them.

Isn’t this the moral equivalent of, say, the police declaring that they will now regulate homicide so that only certain pre-approved killers may kill, thereby reducing the murder rate by 2 percent? Once you’ve declared that cigarettes are most efficient killing device ever devised, don’t have to go all the way with your moral argument and insist on a ban?

Apparently not. Instead, this is the message the government constantly sends us about tobacco: “This vile, carcinogenic product has no socially redeeming value whatsoever. It stunts the growth of children, emtumors the lungs of the aged. Its purveyors are wicked men who shamelessly profit from addiction. But don’t worry, citizens. We shall now create new government bureaucracies to oversee tobacco’s proper distribution. Please leave your smoking tax at the counter of the 7-11. You’re welcome.”