Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Ideology trumps sense and science on smoking

Strongly held ideologies beget polarization, and the nation is seeing plenty of both. But the oft-repeated "no new taxes" mantra is about to cost Idahoans a lot of money we can ill afford.

An Idaho legislative committee last week refused to increase the tax on cigarettes, even though at 57 cents per pack the state has the lowest such tax in the Northwest and is ahead of Virginia's 30 cents by just a smidge.

A bill backed by health groups including the American Cancer Society and the American Lung Society would have increased the tax more than three-fold to $1.83 per pack.

Washington state tacks $3 onto a pack, Utah and Montana $1.70, Oregon $1.18, Nevada 80 cents and Wyoming 60 cents.

Nonetheless, some Idaho legislators seem to take pride in the state's low tax on tobacco that leaves smokers free to make really bad choices—for everyone.

Rep. Lenore Barrett, R-Challis, who's long been a go-to source of wisdom on matters that haunt the right-wing fringe, alleged that a cigarette tax increase is an objectionable form of social engineering in discouraging smoking and opined that it's not the proper role of government.

Rep. Dick Harwood, R-St. Maries, who apparently is a proud representative of the Flat Earth Society as well, said he doubted that smoking is harmful to people's health. As proof, he noted that his own mother smoked for 82 years with no ill effects.

Rep. Del Raybould, R-Rexburg, defended low-wage earners who smoke by saying a higher tax would harm their families by leaving them with less money.

The trio's arguments, along with the heartburn that hiking a tax, any tax, gives the rest of their colleagues—carried the day. The House Revenue and Taxation Committee effectively killed the cigarette tax hike with a vote of 11-5.

Just three Republicans and two Democrats supported the bill.

The vote dismissed the definitive science that has shown smoking to be a leading cause of cancer and heart disease. The costs of treating tobacco-related diseases is staggering—$319 million a year in Idaho alone with taxpayers picking up $83 million in Medicaid costs. Not to mention paying sky-rocketing fees for their own private health insurance as a result. Now, Raybould can rest easy in the knowledge that low-wage smokers will escape unscathed by higher taxes and that nonsmokers will continue to be forced to pick up smokers' medical bills.

Barrett can sleep soundly at night while nonsmokers, the majority in Idaho, will chafe under the Legislature's blanket of utter failure to protect their pocketbooks.

And Harwood? He will remain a fool's choice for medical advice.

Here we have Idaho.

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