Oregon Tobacco Tax Serves Greater Good


Having lived in Canada for a spell, I’m familiar with the concept of the greater good – you know, crazy ideas like single-payer health care and something more than hand slaps for hate crimes. The kind of stuff that rankles to the bone every live-free-or-die Randian (Ayn, that is) this side of the border.

But for all the rabid American individualism that still distinguishes life in the two countries, every now and then the Canadian preference for long-view collectivism seeps southward. By a slim margin (31-29) the Oregon House in March passed a bill empowering counties to assess their own taxes on tobacco products. Set to come before an uncertain Senate, if signed into law county officials could introduce increases without voter approval.

The bill’s detractors make the usual (and unfortunately accurate) argument that increasing tobacco taxes discriminates against those who smoke the most and have the least. (Big Tobacco has made serious hay with this polemic elsewhere and has for months used it to lobby Democrats representing the state’s eastern districts.)

A second apologetic is likewise true: As has been shown with everything from gasoline to liquor, buyers will cross county, even state lines in search of lower prices, thereby lessening the bill’s intended effects. Thirdly, the conservatives have it right that as with any form of advanced addiction, some users will sacrifice even life’s basics to obtain nicotine. If enacted, the legislation will indeed include a short- and mid-term misery factor.

But even as House dissenters have seized upon the bill’s imperfections, its proponents have made a commanding, greater-good case that centers around three core outcomes:

• Despite corporate-sponsored studies to the contrary, there is clear evidence that over time increasing the price of cigarettes decreases use;

• If an amendment to the bill is successful, the increase in tax revenue currently earmarked for smoking cessation, narcotics and alcohol recovery and mental health programs would be boosted from 20 to 40%.

But perhaps the most glaring difference between the two sides lies in the bill-backers’ sense of economic and moral urgency.

By way of economics it’s a simple as a revenue-starved federal government that passes the hurt down to states, and states down to counties and municipalities. At some 30 cents below the national average for cigarette taxes ($1.18 versus $1.48 per pack) the plan to free up counties to assess tax rates will help remedy decades of inadequate funding, general as well as targeted.

Regarding moral urgency, the use of tobacco products is the number-one cause of preventable deaths in Oregon.

House Bill 2780 will not put an end to smoking in this state, nor will it deter corporate special interests from continuing their barrage on lawmakers. But combined with other best-practice measures it will at least shed more light on the state’s passive enabling of tobacco-related deaths. And maybe in the end serve the greater good.

Don Rollins is a Unitarian Universalist minister in Eugene, Ore. Email donaldlrollins@gmail.com.

From The Progressive Populist, June 1, 2013



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