Wednesday, August 8, 2007

If you've got 'em, flush 'em

A Michigan-based group called the Wisconsin Association of Distributors put out a press release the other day applauding Assembly Republicans for deleting a proposed $1.25 a pack increase in the cigarette tax from Gov. Jim Doyle's budget.

This group didn't say anything about how a higher cigarette tax would discourage kids from starting to smoke and encourage adults to quit, and how having fewer people who smoke would contribute to the world's population problem.

That's probably the best argument against higher tobacco taxes, but it apparently didn't occur to the distributors.

Instead, they were worried that a higher cigarette tax would cost jobs.

"Such a large increase in the tobacco tax will simply devastate the state's wholesale and retail community," said Polly Reber, executive director of the association.

"We're looking at about a 30 percent drop in sales costing the wholesale and retail community more than $80 million. What will happen is simple: People will lose their jobs."

The Michigan-based association said economists had forecast that cigarette sales in Wisconsin would fall by almost 80 million packs, costing the state's wholesalers and retailers almost 1,200 jobs.

William E. Eggleston, my late father, picked up on that argument when it was made in the mid-1960s, after the first Surgeon General's Report on Smoking and Health.

My father reasoned that we know that smoking kills us, and quitting is the only sane thing to do, but those job losses would be mighty painful.

With a gift for satire that would rival Jonathan Swift, my father came up with a solution. The only patriotic thing to do, he wrote, was to continue buying cigarettes as though the surgeon general had never come out with his damning 1964 recitation of the harm smoking does. But instead of smoking the cigarettes they buy, my father wrote, people should take them home and flush them down the toilet.

We could still have the jobs — the good-paying jobs, our union brethren might add — in the tobacco factories, not to mention the less-than-munificently remunerative positions in the convenience stores. Temporarily there would be fewer good-paying jobs in cancer wards and funeral parlors, but hey, people will find new bad habits.

And there would be more very good-paying jobs for plumbers called out to fix all those clogged toilets. So America's economy would continue to hum along, and the health of the nation would improve, my father wrote.

It would be a win-win-win situation. Too bad my father never met Tommy Thompson.

It's been more than 40 years since that first surgeon general's report. People are still smoking cigarettes. The surgeon general has followed up his 1964 report with dozens more, each more damning than the last. And people are still smoking cigarettes.

But the reality of those reports — and the predictions that tax increases cut tobacco use — is beginning to trickle down to the powers that be in Washington.

The New York Times reports that leaders of the Senate Finance Committee have reached agreement on a bipartisan plan to raise the federal cigarette tax to $1 a pack. Republicans and Democrats in Washington seem to see eye to eye on more things than Democrats and Republicans in Wisconsin.

By the way, my father never actually quit smoking. But for many years he cut his smoking to eight cigarettes a day, only during odd-numbered hours. He couldn't have another cigarette if he stayed up late, guaranteeing that he wouldn't lose any sleep to the tobacco companies.

And until the day he died, he understood a specious argument when he heard one. Maybe if we all learned a lesson from him and laughed at all the specious arguments we encounter, the world would be a better place. There'd sure be a lot more laughter.

-- Rich Eggleston

This piece also appeared in the Wisconsin State Journal (7/20/07) and The Capital Times (8/7/07).

1 comment:

Liz @ SmokeFree Wisconsin said...

Thanks for sharing your humor with us Rich!