I breathe, so tax me

By Robert Granger

Picture this: it’s a hot summer day, and you’re hanging out in your backyard with a few friends. The sun is beating hard, so you and your buddies go down to the local convenience store for some refreshing treats and munchies.

You walk into the store, fill up a cup with your favourite drink, and snatch a candy bar and a bag of chips on your way to the counter. The clerk rings up your purchases and as you reach for your wallet, you notice the total price is substantially larger than usual. Your eyebrow arches dubiously and you utter a confused, "What’s up?" to the clerk.

"Didn’t you hear?" he sneers. "The government raised the tax on a bunch of products so kids would stop buying them."

"Why would they care if kids buy them? The occasional soft drink or candy bar isn’t going to hurt anyone!"

"That’s not what the feds think," the clerk replies. "The sugar and phosphoric acid in the soft drink can wreak havoc on one’s teeth. If kids drink enough of those every day, they could seriously damage their fragile enamels and set taxpayers back thousands of dollars to repair their dental problems. And don’t get me started on that candy bar or those chips! Kids who eat those constantly could become overweight and develop diabetes, or knee problems, or cardiovascular disease, or a host of other conditions. Then we’d all pay through the nose to fix them up."

"That’s ridiculous! Why do I have to pay more if they’re just targeting kids? I protest!"

"Hey, man, I don’t make the rules. Now are you going to pay for that stuff, or not?"

This situation, although contrived, is the very same as that currently faced by smokers. Last week, the government decided it was time to really give young folks a reason to quit smoking: because they won’t be able to afford it. Unfortunately, this also punishes people over the age of 18 who enjoy lighting it up. Folks who are old enough to know what is "good" or "bad" for them and decide that cigarettes are a worthwhile investment are being robbed because of a lazy blanket strategy. If the government were really concerned about underage smoking, they should instead increase penalties for bootleggers and kids who smoke in public. No one will want to bootleg for a bunch of kids if the fine is too high; neither will kids smoke, at least in the open, if they have to pay a stiff fine.

My hypothetical situation illustrates another important point: there are other consumer products that are just as noxious as cigarettes, and perhaps even more dangerous because of their perceived innocuousness. While smokers are singled out because of their unhealthy habit, thousands of people stuff themselves with gross amounts of saturated fats, sugar, salt and preservatives. Day in and day out, people abuse their bodies with hamburgers and coffee; even fresh fruit, the staple food of health freaks, contains traces of carcinogenic pesticides. So why are we concerned with making it hard for young adults to smoke when we choke ourselves with poisons and slow-acting artery cloggers every day? Practice what you preach, that’s what I say.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not arguing that we should make it easy for teenagers to smoke. What I am saying is that we should either tax everything that’s remotely unhealthy, or not tax anything at all. Fluorinated water? Tax it. A bag of PCB-sprayed oranges? Tax them. Tax people who don’t exercise. Tax butter, and tax fast food even more. People who watch TV all day? Tax them, too. Don’t forget to tax people who play contact sports. And those who work in hazardous environments, like offices, where hard radiation from monitors abounds and deadly paper cuts can happen at any second.

Sound reasonable? I didn’t think so. So why is it reasonable to tax cigarettes?

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