Sending smokers over the river

By Gus Bode

Raising taxes is an ineffective way to persuade smokers to kick the habit, and the efficacy of such a dramatic increase seems a shaky way to provide construction funding.

Blagojevich’s campaign promise to leave the state sales and income taxes alone has been causing him headaches for some time as he has tried to come up with ways to resolve the state’s fiscal crisis.

If Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s budget passes, Illinois will be taxing cigarettes at the rate of $1.73 per pack, a 76 percent increase predicted to raise $155 million per year.

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Anti-smoking groups like the Missouri Partnership on Smoking or Health, eager to tax cancer sticks out of existence, claim smokers quit in droves after every tax hike. Undoubtedly some do, particularly younger smokers with less money to spend – and more importantly, in whom the talons of nicotine addiction are less deeply embedded.

Raising taxes is an ineffective way to persuade smokers to kick the habit, and the efficacy of such a dramatic increase seems a shaky way to provide construction funding. People still smoke in Rhode Island, where the tobacco excise tax is $2.46 per pack, the highest in the nation for the fourth year in a row. Of course, Rhode Island residents probably take a short drive to New Hampshire to buy smokes, where the tax is just 52 cents per pack.

Even so, the American Lung Association considers cigarette excise taxes to be laws ensuring smoke-free air, and it ranks all 50 states and Puerto Rico by these laws, issuing each a report card. Other factors in the rankings include tobacco prevention and control appropriations, youth access and smoke-free air laws. Illinois, ranked 24th, gets an “F,” along with 33 other states – but its tobacco tax laws get a “C.” Blagojevich’s proposed hike, if it passes, will surely gain us a point or two of grade point average.

Missouri charges a cigarette excise tax of 17 cents per pack. (“F!” shouts the American Lung Association.) Rep. Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro, knows people will cross the Mississippi in droves for cheap smokes. “And people won’t just buy gas and cigarettes, but they will eat in other states’ restaurants and shop there, too,” Bost said. “I think the state of Missouri just loves to see things like this happen.”

But Kentucky, taxing at the rate of 3 cents per pack, and getting F’s across the board from the American Lung Association, might be even more enticing, particularly to people in southern Illinois. All of this makes Blagojevich’s projections of $155 million in revenue seem optimistic.

Another salient feature of the Blagojevich budget – decreasing automatic pension benefit increases for future state employees – is misguided as well. This could cause job-hunting faculty to cross SIUC off their list, or at least make them unwilling to make long-term commitments to the University.

We hope Blagojevich’s proposals raise every penny he hopes for. The state certainly needs the money. But if his budget passes, people may want to look for alternate routes to St. Louis – the Interstate 64 bridge is crowded already.

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