You’re probably something like me: a professional who doesn’t smoke tobacco. Although in my case, I puff an occasional stogie, maybe once every two months. So if Proposition 56 passes in November, increasing tobacco taxes $2 a pack, it’s one of the few taxes that wouldn’t phase my personal bank account. And it wouldn’t affect anti-tobacco fanatic Tom Steyer, the hedge-fund billionaire backing the initiative, who’s obsessed with making everyone else in the state miserable.
But I know poor people who will be devastated. Prop. 56 will inhale “in the range of $1.1 billion to $1.6 billion annually by 2017-18,” according to the Attorney General’s summary. Poor friends of mine smoke a pack a day, so that’s $730 a year more pilfered from them.
Of course, the response will be: the poor should quit smoking and save not only the new $2 tax, but the current $5 to $7 cost of a pack. Savings: up to $9 a day, or $3,285 a year. But poor people commonly use cigarettes for recreation and self-medication. Unlike the rich sponsors of Prop. 56, the poor when they get stressed out can’t take a vacation in Gstaad. And they prefer puffing smokes to Valium.
I just watched the HBO series “The Pacific,” about the U.S. Marines fighting Japan from 1942-45. It’s based on such real heroes as John Basilone, a Medal of Honor Winner, and Eugene Sledge, author of the terrifying memoir, “With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa.” When Sledge makes it home and is dealing with what we now call PTSD, someone asks him why he smokes his “MacArthur Pipe.” He responds, “It calms my nerves.” Nowadays he would be considered not a hero, but a bad role model for children.
The Yes on 56 campaign sight promotes, “Keep Our Children from Smoking.” But is there any child who hasn’t been inundated for years with anti-smoking propaganda? I remember way back in 1967, when I attended 7th grade at Franklin Junior High School in Michigan, I wrote a little anti-smoking play. It was my first political writing assignments.
Even the anti-56 campaign emphasizes, “PROP 56 ALLOCATES JUST 13% OF NEW TOBACCO TAX MONEY TO TREAT SMOKERS OR STOP KIDS FROM STARTING.”
California already sports the second lowest smoking rate among the states, at 15 percent, after Utah’s 12.2 percent. And the state Legislature just passed a law raising the smoking age to 21 from 18. So at 18, you’re adult enough to join the military and vote for our wonderful legislators, but our legislatures think you’re too stupid and brainwashed to decide if it’s right to buy a pack of smokes. (An exception was made to those already in the military.)
A couple of factors also are at work here. Raising the tax this much will create an even bigger black market. I remember when the Proposition 99 tax of just 25 cents hit in 1988. The next day, the liquor store near where I lived in Huntington Beach was knocked over. “Did they take all that expensive liquor?” I asked the owner as he was supervising a construction crew installing a heavy metal gate. “No, they just grabbed the cartons of cigarettes,” he said. “They’re much lighter.”
Racial tensions, already bad, also could get worse. One of the incidents of police brutality cited by Black Lives Matter and other groups is the death of Eric Garner in New York City in 2014 when police arrested him for selling untaxed cigarettes on a city street. His mother spoke at the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia.
According to the Reason Foundation, “With state cigarette taxes at $4.35 per pack and the Big Apple piling another $1.50 on top of that, New York has become a major destination for smuggled smokes. Up to 60 percent of all cigarettes sold in the state are smuggled from elsewhere.” Ironically, anti-smoking fanatic Michael Bloomberg, who pushed for the high taxes when NYC mayor, also spoke at the convention.
Then there’s terrorism. According to Police Chief Magazine, “Since the dawn of terrorism, procuring finances sufficient to sustain terror operations has been a priority for terrorists. The illicit sale of cigarettes and other commodities by terrorist groups and their supporters has become a crucial part of their funding activities.
“Raising the tax on cigarettes widens the difference between the wholesale price and the retail price of the product and inadvertently creates opportunity for traffickers, who evade the tax and gain the profits. Today cigarette traffickers can make as much as $60 per carton of cigarettes sold illicitly.”
Prop 56’s language does include $48 million a year “for the purpose of funding law enforcement efforts to reduce illegal sales of tobacco products, particularly illegal sales to minors; to reduce cigarette smuggling; tobacco tax evasion the sale of tobacco products without a license and the sale of counterfeit tobacco products,” etc.
So even the pro-56 side concedes it will increase lawlessness.
I suspect Prop. 56 will pass. Proposition 29, a $1 increase, narrowly lost in 2012. So we’re soon going to get: higher taxes, more attacks on the poor, more police, more controls, more lawlessness, more black market activities, maybe more racial tension and terrorism. Prop. 56: It’s the perfect California initiative!
Longtime California commentator John Seiler’s email is: firstname.lastname@example.org