Ever-burning tax machine

Back in the bad old days when practically everybody smoked, a package of cigarettes could be obtained for under half a buck.

Now the federal tax on cigarettes is $1.01 per pack, the states charge a variety of taxes, and even some municipalities have gotten in on the act. Hawaii, for example, charges $3.20 per pack.

In New York, not only does the state charge $4.35 per pack, the city of New York tacks on an extra $1.50. Throw in the feds and New Yorkers have $6.86 invested in those cancer sticks before the tobacco companies have charged a dime.

According to the Tax Policy Center website, the total take by state governments for tobacco taxes in 2010 (the last available year) was $17.27 billion! New York alone took in almost $1.5 billion. (Hawaii brought in a comparatively modest $105 million.)

So, it was hardly a surprise when President Obama announced his budget yesterday that he wants to increase taxes on two categories of individuals – the wealthy and cigarette smokers. Yup, the prez has lumped those two wicked groups together and put them right in his cross hairs.

With the wealthy, he simply plans to limit tax deductions (bad news for charities and nonprofits who get a lot of that deducted money). With smokers, it’s simpler – he wants you to cough up (excuse the term) another 94 cents per pack.

It’s yet another reason to pity the poor tobacco addict. Bad enough he is shooed away when he gets within 20 feet of a public doorway here in Hawaii – now we will make him pay us a bit more to be shunned.

The only downside we see to this multilevel governmental pocket picking of cigarette junkies is that there would be a huge gap in budgets if they actually stopped smoking.

So, it is a fine line government walks when it increases cigarette taxes. How far can we push them without making them actually seek a cure?

Well, maybe it isn’t such a fine line. If the past is any measure, money’s no object in Marlboro country.

n Editorials reflect the opinion of the publisher.