The Sin Tax Hypocrisy...Again

As every good Madison Avenue marketer knows, if you really want to sell, bring in the puppies and the children.

Seems this lesson has been learned quite well by the folks advocating Proposition B on the November 6 ballot. This statewide proposition would raise state cigarette taxes from 17 cents to 90 cents a pack, a 760% increase.

The slogan for supporters of the measure call it "Show Me a Brighter Future." How do you get to a brighter future? Well, that's where the kids come in. Advocates of Prop B say it will lower school class sizes, bring more teachers into the classroom, and pay for needed educational materials.

So why I am so skeptical? I am, after all, a mom. I love kids! I am also a reformed smoker. Having quit the cancer sticks in 1998, I know it is one of the smartest things I have ever done. My health is better, my house is cleaner and my wallet is fuller.

It might help if schoolchildren hadn't already been trotted out on numerous other occasions as a selling point to otherwise controversial ballot measures. Kids have been up front and center in campaigns which have introduced casino gambling into the state of Missouri, as well as every time the gaming industry has wanted to do away with the promises originally made to appease those who worried about the very real social costs of gambling. Proposition A of 2008 was about elementary and secondary education--while casinos quietly eliminated loss limits. The lottery has also benefited from touting its educational value. (Except of course of the educational lesson of statistics that once the state, the advertisers and the distributors get paid, the lottery is a horrible investment.)

If all of these wonderful kids-up-front ads really delivered on their promises, we wouldn't be nearly as worried about the school funding formula as we are. It's akin to Lucy and the football--like Charlie Brown, we fall for it time and time again. Every time we are promised that THIS time, the funds will really be segregated. This time, there won't be a shell game whereby fewer funds are appropriated to education in general revenue making the math of it a wash.

On the one hand, those advocating Prop B tout that it will reduce smoking in the state's population. On the other hand, they advertise that increases in revenue will shore up the state's schools.

How can it be both?

The fact is that if everyone were to quit smoking--which I think would be a fantastic thing, by the way--the revenue source for schools would dry up. No more new teachers or classroom equipment. That money is only there so long as 21% of Missourians continue to smoke.

Increasingly, the health of our state's coffers is directly related to the continued unhealthy activities of its residents. Without smokers and compulsive gamblers, where would the bottom line be?

If smoking followed the guidelines of most any other product, it would be banned. If the FDA regulated it as a drug, it would be pulled from the shelves. But it isn't. There are too many politicians depending on it. In like fashion, if lottery advertising were subject to the same rules as other monetary investments, folks would be doing time by now. Alas, too many politicians depend on that, too.

By the way, if you are wondering why big tobacco is so quiet this time around, it's because they actually gain competitive advantage with Prop B. Generic cigarette manufacturers will be paying a bigger share of funds required by the tobacco settlement. The big boys will be reducing their costs, while adding to the sticker price of their competitors. Funny how that works, isn't it?

Bottom line is, the Prop B folks can want to seriously reduce the number of smokers in the state--a good thing. Or they can want to add revenue to school districts--a good thing.

Just quit telling us we can have it both ways...because we can't.