Smoke tax: Saddling smokers with costs of health reform isn't fair

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Even though smoking is a sin in Utah, saddling smokers with a huge cigarette tax increase to pay for health-care reforms does not strike us as fair.

Yet that's what a coalition of health advocacy groups proposes to do. It wants to persuade the state Legislature to pass the nation's largest-ever cigarette tax increase to raise nearly $50 million to offset smoking-related health-care costs and to pay for smoking cessation programs and some of the health insurance reforms a legislative task force is examining.

The Utah tax would go from 69.5 cents per pack to a whopping $2.

What we don't understand is why smokers, many of whom are of modest means, should bear a disproportionate cost of health care. If the state is serious about reforming health insurance, and government subsidies must be a part of that, those funds should come from general revenues, not from a tax paid only by smokers.

Sure, we understand the argument that smokers cost the state and private health plans extra money because of their addiction. The American Cancer Society and others in the coalition peg that cost at $345 million.

But, frankly, we wonder what the actuaries say about the amount that smokers save Social Security and private pensions because they die younger.

Then there's this little item: Smokers already are funding smoking-cessation programs and making a big contribution to paying for the health insurance of others. Because in addition to paying the tobacco tax, they are providing the revenues that the big tobacco companies pay to the state of Utah as a result of the lawsuit that many states settled against those companies in 1998.

Combined with the cigarette tax, that settlement pumped $23 million into state appropriations in the current fiscal year. That included $10.3 million to the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP), $4 million in tobacco prevention and control, $1.5 million to drug courts, $4 million to the University of Utah for research, treatment and education, and $2.4 million to the state health department. An additional 40 percent of settlement money goes into a state endowment.

There's no debating that smoking causes terrible disease and drives up health-care costs. But so do obesity, poor diet, watching TV and riding motorcycles. If Utah is going further down this road, it also should be imposing an ice cream and soft drink tax. Smokers, by contrast, already are paying.