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Editor's column: Another plan destined to go up in smoke?

Taxing smokers: On the surface, an OK idea. But then again…

July 6, 2013
By Per Peterson , Marshall Independent

I'm not against the idea of a tobacco tax as a way to raise revenue in Minnesota - we can argue until our lungs collapse about whether it's fair or not, and even that depends on how one defines "fair" - but I wonder: How much revenue will this tax really bring in?

And you can bet I'm not the only one.

This is the state's idea of saving face since revenue from electronic gambling - millions that were designated to go toward the state's share of the Vikings' new stadium - went bust. "Fine," the state responded, "we'll find the money elsewhere. We got it! Let's make smokers pay more - maybe then they'll quit, but if they don't, we'll use that money for the Vikings!"

Problem solved (question mark).

We're told the No. 1 reason behind the tax hike is to make people healthier by helping them kick what to some is an unkickable habit; that's a noble spin, but from a political standpoint, it's just blowing smoke.

The DFL wants its cake (healthier Minnesotans) and wants to eat it, too (a major stream of revenue), but can't have it both ways. See, this issue actually presents a conundrum: If higher taxes eventually do force more people quit, that means fewer people will buy cigarettes. Doesn't that mean the revenue stream from the tax slows down?

Seems to simple to be true, and the irony is thicker than tar.

And what of the people who don't want to/can't quit who jump borders for their cigarettes? No revenue coming from those purchases.

What the state should have done is bump up the tax on cigarettes to satisfy its needs, only to a much less degree - instead of $1.60 per pack, why not $.80 per pack? That might keep those insistent on continuing to smoke less likely to cross the border to buy their cigarettes. Lord knows, when it comes to revenue from taxes, the state now has plenty of other options to make up for that $.80 per pack to help pay for the stadium.

Minnesota is now No. 6 in the nation when it comes to the tax rate on cigarettes, jumping from 28. Twenty. Eight. That's too big of a leap, and I fear this could backfire, leaving the state going back to the drawing board to come up with yet another "solution" to fill a funding hole.

Reader warning: Here comes my patented "perfect-world" scenario.

In a perfect world, the state couldn't tax smokers, because there wouldn't be any smokers. Smoking is a nasty, nasty habit, but quitting is a well, ya know. So it bothers me when the holier-than-thou crowd speaks out about not wanting to breathe someone else's exhaust, especially the ones who still moan and groan even after passage of the state's Freedom to Breathe Act - 2007 legislation that aimed at protecting the public from secondhand smoke by outlawing lighting up in public places.

We're coming up on the six-year anniversary of Freedom to Breathe and there are still people complaining about breathing secondhand smoke. Remarkable.

This world is not perfect, however, but that's a good thing for state lawmakers, who are now counting on smokers to keep on puffing away (as long as they buy their smokes in Minnesota). Hopefully the smoking rate in Minnesota continues to fall during the next decade, but we shouldn't assume it will, and if it does, I'd hate to see what the state comes up with next to bring in some cash. There's not much more it can tax, is there? Would it tax the air we breathe? Or how 'bout a language tax - you know, a swear jar where we would all drop a buck in for every time we cursed?

Is taxing smokers the answer to this state's economic questions? At best, it's part of it. At worst, it won't make a damn bit of difference.

Ohh, there's a buck right there.



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