David Paterson's New York is in a whole heap of trouble. The state is barely keeping its head above water with a series of stop-gap spending bills to keep the lights on until the legislature and Gov. Paterson take serious action to bring the budget into balance. This is almost certain to be achieved via what is becoming an annual tradition in Albany – crippling tax hikes coupled with spineless defferal of responsibility to next year's crop of politicians.
Looking at the governor's latest "gap-closing plan" – I prefer to call it a status quo maintenance plan – a couple things jump out. Among roughly $1 billion in "revenue actions," he includes yet another tax increase on tobacco products. In addition to his previous call for a $1 per pack cigarette tax increase, Paterson now insists on a 95 percent tax increase on chewing tobacco, cigars, pipe tobacco, and rolling tobacco, along with a whopping 122 percent tax increase on snuff.
Reading further, though, we get to the interesting part:
Reduce DOH Tobacco Prevention Program (2010-11 Savings: $5 million; 2011-12 Savings: $5 million): This proposal would reduce funding for the Tobacco Prevention Program from $57 million to $52 million. The program supports a variety of tobacco use prevention/cessation initiatives. When coupled with the proposal in this package to increase the tax on certain tobacco products (see section on Revenue Actions below) the overall effectiveness of the State’s efforts to reduce the tobacco use by adults and adolescents will not be impaired.
Now, we can quibble about whether government-funded smoking cessation programs work. Dr. Michael Marlow argues that any link between such cessation programs and lower incidences of smoking is a tenuous one. The National Cancer Policy Board argues they do. I certainly won't use this space to rail against cuts in government spending on any type of program.
But the Paterson plan proves a point we've been making for years: Tobacco tax increases have the express purpose of growing the size of government. Politicians do not care about the supposed health benefits; if they did, they wouldn't be cutting smoking cessation programs. They care about the revenue. And what better way to ensure government growth continues unchecked than by taxing 20 percent of the population? What incentive is there for a non-smoker to oppose high levels of spending if they are not footing the bill?
This is why smokers and non-smokers alike should oppose tobacco tax increases. It's nothing more than frivolous politicians gaming the system to raise more money for their politically connected friends and porky special interest spending priorities. The next time a politician says "I hope we raise zero revenue from this bill because it causes everyone to quit smoking," think back to the situation in New York. Or the other 15 jurisdictions that raised cigarette tax rates in 2009 and didn't spend a dime of it on smoking prevention.