Well folks, they’re at it again. “They” being the people who advocate using the tax system to promote their particular social agenda.

A confederation of organizations, calling itself simply “ A Broad Coalition of Public Health Groups,” is pushing a plan to double the state cigarette excise tax. It would mean a $3 per pack state tax on smokes, up from the current $1.50. The coalition’s idea is that if you push the price high enough, people will quit smoking.

As we’ve said in this space before, smoking is a nasty habit. Most evidence shows that it can cause major health problems and be offensive to those trying to exist around those who smoke. It’s even a fire hazard.

We’ve also said that tobacco is a legal substance. Those who smoke of their free will are violating no laws, as long as they don’t do it where they’re not supposed to. These days, that’s nearly every public place that’s indoors, especially here in New York state.

But the anti-smoking crew isn’t satisfied with the segregation of smokers from the rest of the population and their social ostracizing. They want to force the smokers to their way of thinking by breaking them financially.

In their public push for doubling the state cigarette tax, the health groups would like us to ignore both history and human nature. They would also like us to continue the deplorable practice of using government revenue policy to try to achieve social goals.

Concerning history: We must take a lesson from our international neighbors. A massive cigarette tax hike in Ontario in the early ‘90s led to huge cigarette smuggling operations, one of which was centered here in Niagara Falls, N.Y. Canadian cigarettes destined for the U.S. were diverted back to Canada without paying the Ontario tax. The smugglers sold them for close to full price, pocketing the difference. Ontario eventually rescinded the big tax increase, opting for smaller hikes later.

What makes these people think anything would be different here and now? For example, the state cigarette tax in Virginia is 30 cents per pack. Do the math. If the tax here goes to $3 per pack, do you think there just might be a huge incentive to load a truck with smokes purchased there, slap a phony New York tax stamp on them and drive them here? Even with the cost of gasoline for the truck, that’s a huge, huge profit; a $2.70 per pack differential. It makes drug running look like a lemonade stand by comparison.

And, if you happen to run into Smokin’ Joe Anderson these days, you might notice that smile on his face. Smokin’ Joe and others on New York Indian reservations make their fortunes by selling items that carry high state taxes when sold off the reservation. Of course, the state tax man hasn’t set foot on the rez, at least not yet. So the smoke shop owners make their profit off the difference. Whenever there’s talk of raising taxes on cigarettes, especially a tax hike this massive, you can hear their cash registers ringing for miles away. Increase the cigarette tax and there’s that much more incentive for smokers to drive to the reservation from farther away. Oh, might as well fill up on that tax-free gasoline while you’re there.

Both of these scenarios could have another unintended effect. If the fraud and evasion are widespread enough, the state could actually lose money in the process. Two-hundred percent of nothing is nothing, so those looking for a big revenue windfall could wind up being quite disappointed.

And there are philosophical reasons to think that this is a bad idea. Since when is tax policy, the point of which is to raise money to pay for the operation of government, used as the tool of social architects? Oh, probably since the mortgage interest deduction for income taxes was dreamed up as an incentive to promote home ownership. Or maybe when someone figured employer-assisted health insurance wasn’t really part of your income (it is) so it’s not counted on your W-2 form.

The fact is the use of tax incentives or disincentives happens all the time. That doesn’t make it right. That’s also why ideas such as the flat tax, a simple percentage of one’s income, never gain traction. The special interests that benefit from those deductions always make sure it’s killed.

So, if you don’t want us to smoke, explain why. Educate us, show us what’s good for us. Discourse and discussion: It’s the American Way. Just keep your hands out of our pockets.

Dick Lucinski is the managing editor of the Niagara Gazette. His columns run Wednesdays and Sundays.

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