Tuesday, February 06, 2007

No to a ban, yes to higher cigarette taxes

Lost in the cloud of smoke issuing from the ears of smoking-ban advocates is any discernible target of their ire. What I mean is that the ban on smoking in bars and restaurants seems to be for them and end in itself; the ban is not a way to improve public health or even curb smoking at large, but simply the removal of a minor nuisance in places where they rarely frequent anyway. It's as if they don't want anyone to enjoy themselves in a manner of which they do not approve. They are the new teetotalers whose only way to improve their relative quality of live is to lower that of those around them.

Unfortunately, they dress up their arguments with clothing that looks good, but is ultimately ill-fitting and flimsy. The principal argument is that second-hand smoke is a health hazard on the same order as smoking itself. In a Washington Post article, Gio Batta Gori of the Health Policy Center exposes the science of second-hand smoke as nothing more than a glorified sociological survey whose methodology required senior citizens to recall all their exposure to second-hand smoke over their lifetimes. In a 10-minute phone survey! Those who had lung cancer were more likely to recall second-hand exposure; however, the same group was much more likely to underreport a previous smoking habit. It's bad, bad science, yet it is underpins the best argument for the ban.

Second, we hear today that Tennessee gets a D- from the American Lung Association for its relatively lax policies on smoking. Of course we did - in order to get an A, you have to have bans and high taxes. That's the scorecard. Are the large number of state parks and recreational areas, lack of major pollutants, and a low population density a credit to Tennessee in terms of lung health? Of course it is - but not on the ALA scorecard. The ALA consists of plenty of lawyers whose job is to lobby for ALA policies.

Here's the truth: regular and prolonged cigarette smoking is very bad for your health. But what the tobacco companies and every smoker knows - smoking is frequently enjoyable. So little is still know about our respiratory system that no one - no doctor, lawyer, pundit, critic, or blogger - can quantify what level of first- or second hand exposure causes the long-term damage that we fear. So, we're left with "regular and prolonged" as the behavior we need to change.

And that's why a cigarette tax is the best way to curb all kinds of smoking - it changes the economic equation. Whenever a good is taxed, its price goes up. Basic economics states that the quantity of a good demanded is lessened at higher prices. Higher cigarette prices reduce smoking at all levels - from teenagers to social smokers to those most at risk, addict smokers. Higher prices increase the incentive to quit, which is ultimately the goal to reduce lung cancer incidence.

Good for the governor for proposing a cigarette tax increase. I don't know what I think about earmarking that money for school operations, perhaps an endowment would be better. A reduction in the food tax probably would have been better in my mind, since the government monopoly on education is the source of the school problem rather than lack of money. Still, the tax is a good first step to solve one problem and stir debate on the other.