Smokers, time to inhale to help the state

Lately, the headlines seem of a theme: Stocks in free fall and homelessness rising, budgets slashed and nonprofits cut. In one grim sign-of-the-times story, a mother tried to stretch her pennies by watering down her baby's formula to make it last, not knowing it could have killed him.

This week, we read that the recession is officially official, as if we needed confirmation.

So, given the current state of things, a question:

How can anyone keep a straight face and argue against increasing our low state tax on cigarettes — a change that could raise from $500-million to more than $1-billion starting next year, depending on how big the bump?

What you think about increasing the cigarette tax — oops, make that cigarette "user fee," as the tax-wary prefer to call it — may have something to do with how you feel about cigarettes themselves.

Don't smoke 'em? Don't like what they do to people, not to mention the related health care costs? Well, sure, then go ahead and raise the current 34-cents-a-pack tax.

That figure, which hasn't gone up in nearly 20 years, ranks 46th in the nation. The average tax among other states is more than triple what you currently get tagged for a pack of Camels at your neighborhood 7-Eleven.

Now maybe, like me, you would not weep to see cigarettes priced right out of existence, so kids couldn't easily pick up a habit that could one day kill them.

But we're supposed to be about making decisions for ourselves instead of letting government mother us. Nobody wants the Obesity Police out there arresting people for possession of Cheetos next.

Given the state of the state, even our governor, Charming Charlie, recently sounded as if he would at least consider the idea of raising this particular "user fee." He later softened that stance to say he was not "warm and fuzzy" on the subject of an increase, and all options should be considered.

Arguments against? Increasing the cigarette tax would be harder on those smokers whose paychecks just can't take one more bite. More-monied ones would likely continue to light up anyway. The argument has also been made that if the tax is too high — 2 bucks and up in some states — people will quit, or at least quit buying here, where they cost so much.

The amount bandied about last week was a 50-cents-a-pack increase — probably not enough to chase off the seriously committed smokers I know. Even a dollar increase would make it only 15 cents more than the U.S. average.

Last legislative session, a proposal to raise the tax by a buck got no traction. But this is not last time. A bill for a dollar increase, co-sponsored by Rep. Rick Kriseman, D-St. Petersburg, is up for consideration in the coming session.

"I'm more hopeful than last (time), but it's a very measured hope," Kriseman says. "I think the situation is so severe that as a Legislature, I don't know that we're doing our jobs if we're not looking at everything."

Even in grim headlines come glimpses of good efforts to finding fixes, like the news this week of Florida banks agreeing to a 45 day reprieve on certain home foreclosures.

The bottom line — and we're all about bottom line these days — is lawmakers need to make hard choices about every program, project, luxury and "sin" our state has to offer. Our low-ball cigarette tax? That's one's not so hard.

Smokers, time to inhale to help the state 12/02/08 [Last modified: Thursday, December 4, 2008 1:32pm]

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