It is well documented that these health problems cost us all. They cost the economy in lost productivity and lost wages. They cost the taxpayer in medical costs that often are beyond what the smoker can afford and thus are treated through social services like Medicaid.
And it has long been a principle of conservative (i.e., Republican) philosophy that people should be responsible for the decisions they make. Indeed, carried to its extreme, some argue that if a person chooses to smoke and can’t pay for the consequences, then (as Ebenezer Scrooge so famously put it in A Christmas Carol), they should die and “reduce the surplus population.”
We can rejoice that there are few among us who would go that far. However, those who smoke undoubtedly do place a financial burden on society.
Thus, when a plan emerges that would relieve at least some of that burden, reason says that it should be considered — even if, horror of horrors, it means raising taxes.
In the session of the Alabama Legislature that begins Feb. 7, two bills will be introduced that will raise the state’s tax on cigarettes — a tax that is the fifth-lowest in the nation.
Rep. Patricia Todd, D-Birmingham, will propose (as she has every year since 2008) that the cigarette tax be increased from the current 42.5 cents a pack to 75 cents, which would raise about $75 million a year. This would go into the General Fund, which pays for non-education services. The cigarette tax would not cover that budget’s projected $400 million shortfall, but it would help.
Rep. Joe Hubbard, D-Montgomery, is filing a bill that would raise the tax to $1 a pack and bring in about $230 million. What is significant about Hubbard’s bill is that the money would go to the state Medicaid agency, the part of the General Fund that provides health care for low-income and disabled Alabamians.
Republicans are not enthusiastic about the plan. They would rather cut agencies even more than they have been cut already.
Rep. Jim Barton, R-Mobile, who chairs the Senate Rules Committee, which sets the agenda for the consideration of bills, sees little support among Republicans for a tax increase. (To be fair, many Democrats have little stomach for it, either.)
As a result, everyone, not just smokers, will feel the pain. Instead of asking those who use cigarettes to help pay the cost of what their smoking causes, “I think we’re going to cut and see how it feels to live in a state that has cut everywhere,” Barton told The Birmingham News. “We’ve cut into the muscle . . . I think we’ll be cutting into the bone.”
Maybe that is what it will take for Alabamians to see what happens when the Legislature refuses to take prudent, reasonable steps to deal with a crisis.
On the other hand, perhaps the Legislature will face the facts in this case and act in the best interest of Alabamians. That would be a welcomed change.