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Commentary

California Tobacco Tax Created a Pork Barrel


     
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Coloradans are now considering adopting a new tax on tobacco products, almost identical to California’s “Proposition 99,” passed in November 1988. Led by the unlikely role model of Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), a national coalition of nonprofit sector political activists is seeking to force Americans to adopt their version of “clean living” by taxing “sin” and using the revenues for propaganda campaigns on behalf of even more taxes and activism. Before Coloradans jump on this neo-puritan bandwagon, they should consider the California experience.

California voters passed a referendum in 1988 that increased the state’s cigarette tax by 25 cents a pack (the proposal is [stet] [in] Colorado is in excess of 50 cents a pack) and earmarked the funds for anti-smoking education in schools and communities, hospital and physician treatment of indigent patients, research on tobacco-related diseases and “environmental concerns.” The last category was apparently established to buy the support of environmental groups. Over $500 million per year has been raised from the new tax.

Proposition 99 has created a giant pork barrel for a vast network of public health bureaucrats and nonprofit political activists organized under the umbrella group, Americans for Nonsmokers Rights (ANR), whose spokesman, Glenn Barr, has stated his goal as to “force them [smokers] to do the right thing for themselves.”

The law has showered the public schools and local chapters of the American Cancer Society, American Lung Association and American Heart Association with over $150 million to ostensibly teach kids to be nonsmokers.

But in reality much of the money has been squandered on student “gift” programs that give away backpacks, gift certificates, movie tickets, compact discs, radios, sports equipment and even lottery tickets as “rewards” for promises to quit smoking.

Some school districts have used the funds for pool parties, carnivals, trips to Yosemite National Park and to sponsor “outrageous stunt” contests that award prizes to whomever performs the weirdest feat to shock a loved one into stopping smoking. Past winners include a girl who consumed an entire can of “Mighty Dog” dog food.

Since no serious effort is made to verify whether students have taken up smoking or not, the program is simply a giant giveaway of taxpayers’ money and another government make-work program for “public health” bureaucrats and nonprofit sector political activists.

A survey by the California Department of Health Services failed to detect any decline in adolescent smoking, and some health researchers believe the program may actually increase teenage smoking by making it so taboo. A state-funded evaluation of the anti-smoking education programs by University of California professor John P. Pierce concluded that they had “no effect on tobacco use.”

Proposition 99 forbids the use of tax funds “to promote partisan politics or candidates” or “to promote the passage of any law.” But the tax-funded political activists have blatantly flouted the law from the very beginning by lobbying for literally hundreds of anti-smoking ordinances.

For example, Contra Costa County published minutes from a public meeting in which it said it would “play a crucial role in mobilizing community support” for a proposed ordinance. Sacramento County has sent out flyers urging voters to pass an anti-smoking ordinance in that county. Employees from Butte County have spent time lobbying for more restrictive smoking laws. And a three-day, Proposition 99-funded conference in Los Angeles in 1992 was entirely devoted to discussing political strategies.

Government officials and nonprofit political activists have thus far gotten away with violating the law with regard to political uses of Proposition 99 funds by claiming that the funds are used for “education,” not politics. At the 1992 Los Angeles conference, a San Luis Obispo County Health Department official, Barbara Wells, boasted how she skirted the law by lobbying for an anti-smoking ordinance with Proposition 99 funds under the guise of “education” while in reality building a “politically-active community.”

Most of the research funded by Proposition 99 is so useless that even the legislative sponsor of the law, state assemblyman Phillip Isenberg, is demanding a reallocation of funds away from research and toward indigent and prenatal care. He and other legislators are skeptical of the value of testing to see if smoking causes skin wrinkles, “discovering” that teenage “trouble makers” tend to smoke, or showing that your teeth will turn yellow if you begin smoking as an adolescent.

Some of the “research” money is used for political intelligence gathering and “doesn’t deserve to be classified as research,” according to California Assembly Speaker Willie Brown. Professor Stanton Glantz of the University of California at San Francisco (and president of Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights) has received some of the largest research grants for his work “tracking tobacco industry activities in California” which Brown says “is what we in politics do to each other when we’re running for reelection” and has nothing to do with disease research.

California’s Prposition 99 has created a enormous bureaucracy that has “taken on the garb of a religious crusade,” according to state assemblyman Isenberg. Currently, the “crusade” is for a “smoke-free society,” but this is obviously just a stepping stone to restricting and outlawing other kinds of politically-incorrect behavior as well. As ANR co-director Julia Carol recently told The Washington Post, if tobacco “magically disappeared,” they would “simply move on to other causes.” In just the past few months, neo-Puritanical political activists have issued reports condemning hot dogs, movie theater popcorn, beer, steak and even golf courses!

If California’s Proposition 99 establishes a trend, Americans can expect to see more of their tax money used by neo-Puritanical political activists to whittle away at their personal freedoms. For, as economist Ludwig von Mises once said, “Once the principle is admitted that it is the duty of government to protect the individual from his own foolishness, no serious objections can be raised against further encroachments … If one abolishes man’s freedom to determine his own consumption, one takes all freedoms away. The naïve advocates of government interference with consumption … unwittingly support the cause of censorship, inquisition, intolerance, and the persecution of dissenters.”


Thomas J. DiLorenzo is a Research Fellow at The Independent Institute, and Professor of Economics at Loyola College in Maryland.







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