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Warning: Smokers Risk Exposure to Unfair Taxation

SACRAMENTO

Every morning at Lake Tahoe I’d drive to a 7-Eleven. I’d go in a Ford, but usually have two things in common with people arriving in more fancy cars, like a Navigator SUV or BMW convertible. We’d buy newspapers. And we did not smoke.

There also was another group of regulars, largely Latino, usually arriving on foot in old shoes. They’d buy a California lottery ticket and a pack of cigarettes, lighting up immediately after stepping outside.

Many waited on the corner, hoping to be picked up as day laborers. Maybe make $20-$30.

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These are the people Democratic politicians are supposed to be watching over, right? The vulnerable poor, barely able to scratch out a daily subsistence--escaping into state-hawked jackpot pipe dreams and nicotine vapors.

Then I return to Sacramento from vacation and find Democrats gleefully targeting these desperate souls, acting like pickpockets.

Because Gov. Gray Davis and Republicans won’t raise income taxes on the rich--including campaign contributors--and since the GOP refuses to temporarily increase the vehicle license fee, Democrats have decided to hit up smokers again. Lots of working stiffs.

The Capitol powers want to reach into smokers’ pockets for $1.7 billion this fiscal year, claiming that’s what is needed to close a $23.6-billion budget shortfall. The tax hike would remain on the books permanently.

And it is the little fellow who would pay--not “big tobacco,” as the Democrats try to spin.

Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson (D-Culver City)--himself a smoker, who vows to quit if his bill passes--is pushing the biggest cigarette tax increase in any state’s history. He’d raise the levy by $2.13 per pack, pushing it to $3. It’s now 87 cents, having been boosted by 50 cents in 1998 when voters approved filmmaker Rob Reiner’s Proposition 10 to pay for early childhood development.

A pack of cigarettes would cost about $7 if Wesson’s bill passes. And something close to it seems certain to.

Democrats are rationalizing this as do-gooder big brotherism: They’re doing smokers a favor by pricing them out of the market. Encouraging them to quit. More important, they’re discouraging teens from starting.

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There is evidence to support their rationalization.

“Youth are particularly price-sensitive,” says Ken August, spokesman for the state Department of Health Services.

In 1998, before the 50-cent tax hike, nearly 11% of children ages 12-17 smoked, according to department surveys. That has dropped to about 6%, based on 2001 data.

Among California adults, there are relatively fewer quitters. In 1998, 18.4% smoked. That slipped to 17.3% last year.

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The state Board of Equalization simultaneously has documented a significant increase in cigarette smuggling. It is costing the state up to $260 million annually and is expected to get much worse with Wesson’s tax hike.

Which adults smoke?

The largest numbers are among men, young people, African Americans, high school-educated and those earning under $20,000.

Who smokes the least?

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Women, seniors, Asians, college-educated, people making over $75,000.

Higher taxes aren’t the only cause of reduced cigarette demand. Also credit California’s revolutionary smoking bans in restaurants, bars, shops and at the office.

Clever anti-smoking TV ads likewise have prodded viewers off cigarettes. They’re sponsored by the health services department, using tobacco taxes imposed by voters in 1988 with Proposition 99.

But the department faces a deep cut in anti-tobacco funding. Last year, it spent about $135 million. In the current budget proposal, that’s reduced to $88 million.

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And this brings up a problem--a disconnect, a hypocrisy--with Wesson’s tax hike. While professing to discourage smoking, Democrats aren’t earmarking any of the new money for anti-tobacco programs. Or, for that matter, tobacco-related health care. Or to enforce the ban on sales to kids. Or to douse forest fires ignited by flipped butts.

No, this is all about bullies avoiding the powerful and mugging the weak. Political cowardice that is politically correct.

Democrats have a poll--sponsored by the California Teachers Assn.--that shows voters cheering them on. Specifically: 68% support higher tobacco taxes, 75% prefer a cigarette tax hike to higher car fees, and hardly anyone wants to cut spending for schools, police or health.

But here’s the most important finding: By 3 to 1, people say they’d support an Assembly candidate who voted to raise cigarette taxes over one who refused to.

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Guess that makes it OK to belt the little guy. Call it collateral damage in the Capitol budget wars.

But Democrats should feel at least a twinge of shame for backing away from the big fellas in the BMWs and Navigators.


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