• 22.12.2012 Berryville Bust Part Of $33M Cigarettes Sting

    A Federal Grand Jury sitting in the United States District Court for the Western District of Virginia in Harrisonburg has indicted dozens of individuals for conspiring to traffic in contraband cigarettes, money laundering and a variety of related charges.The defendants were charged by the grand jury in four separate indictments returned under seal on February 17, 2011, August 3, 2011 and October 6, 2011. Those indictments were unsealed earlier this week following the arrest and initial court appearances by the defendants.The charges are the result of a three-year investigation by the United...

  • 20.11.2012 Covenant Kicks The Habit

    Amy Olson-Yarbrough was tired of being a prisoner to tobacco."I decided I didn't want cigarettes to control my life any more," Olson-Yarbrough said. "When you're a smoker you have to figure out where you're going to be able to smoke cigarettes next, how long until my next cigarette, how am I going to hide it from my kids . . ."So, on Nov. 23, 2010, Olson-Yarbrough - a pack-a-day smoker who had been at it for close to two decades - quit smoking cigarettes.Now, Olson-Yarbrough can't stand anything about it."The smell of buy cigarettes really nauseates me," she said. "I'll never go back to...

  • 18.10.2012 No-smoking Policy For New Hires

    Should smokers who want to work for the county be forced to sign a pledge they will quit smoking cigarettes — and then be required to follow through before starting work?Should they pay more for their health-care coverage if they don’t keep the pledge, or decline to sign it?Is it discrimination for government not to consider smokers to fill open positions?The Muscatine County Board of Supervisors decided to have the county’s Health and Safety Committee study the issue, which was brought up by Sheriff Dave White at the Board’s regular meeting Monday.White told the Board he’s heard...

  • 10.09.2012 Court Upholds Big Award In Smoker's Case

    A state appeals court upheld $13.8 million in punitive damages against Philip Morris on Wednesday for the addiction and death of a 45-year cigarette smoker, saying the company's decades of concealment and lies about the dangers of its products were "extremely reprehensible."In a 2-1 ruling, the Second District Court of Appeal in Los Angeles affirmed a verdict by a Los Angeles County jury in the case of Betty Bullock of Newport Beach (Orange County). Bullock had started smoking cigarettes Marlboros in 1956, at age 17, and quit in 2001 after she was diagnosed with lung cancer, two years...

  • 09.09.2012 California Court Approves 16:1 Punitive Damage Award

    Corporate America has pushed hard for years to hold the line on punitive damages, with some successThe Supreme Court has ruled that excessively high punitive damage awards, designed to punish defendants for particularly egregious behavior, can violate the Due Process clause. And the California Supreme Court had held that punitive damages typically should not be more than nine to ten times the size of damages awarded to compensate injured parties.But in a smoking cigarettes case against Philip Morris, a California appellate court yesterday signed off on punitive damages that were 16 times...

Cigarettes, Liquor, Even Soda

In 2005, then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty had a revenue problem, created largely by his pledge against any additional tax increases. State government was in shutdown (though less fully and seriously than now).

Taxes, according to the new Republican orthodoxy, were an unacceptable means of supporting the functions of government. So a "health impact fee" on tobacco products was proposed to avoid the tax tag.

The health impact fee on a pack of cheap cigarettes was and remains 75 cents. It passed and established a Republican precedent of such fees as a response to budget shutdowns.

These fees are recurring money and do not rely on phony shifts of costs to school districts, municipalities, or the elderly and disabled.

While poor people may smoke, drink and engage in other unhealthy behavior more than the rich (including food choices leading to obesity), causing such fees to be regressive, these decisions are voluntary and consistent with a Republican free-to-choose ideology.

In the current impasse, resulting largely from the same rigid antitax ideology, we should consider broadening the Pawlenty precedent of health impact fees to alcohol and soda drinks. Apart from a consensus on the health risks of tobacco, the evidence in favor of the health benefits of reduced alcohol consumption, especially of distilled spirits, needs no repetition.

As the Mondale-Carlson Task Force noted in its recommendations last week, the fee on distilled spirits has not been raised since 1987. In deference to brewing and wine drinking (one for the ballpark, the other for the opera), beer and wine might be exempted.

Finally, Minnesota could again establish itself as a national trendsetter with the first substantial soft-drink health impact fee in the nation. Virtually every study of the impact of soft drinks on childhood and adolescent obesity has found a clear link. Any measure that would induce substitution of fruit juices or milk is a nutritional step in the right direction.

Based on Minnesota Department of Revenue estimates from 2009-10, an increase in the Pawlenty health impact fee on cheap cigarette online of another 75 cents, and in tobacco excise taxes from the current 48 cents to a dollar, would generate $393 million in recurring revenues over the two-year budget cycle, after adjusting for a reduction in consumption due to the higher prices (what economists call the price elasticity response).

An increase in the tax rate on distilled spirits from $1.33 per liter to $2 (exempting beer and wine) would generate another $101 million over the biennium. Finally, adding a health impact fee of 5 percent on a one-dollar, 12-ounce can of soda would generate $36 million in new revenues to state coffers.

These additions add up to $530 million, or more than half a billion dollars in recurring revenues, not simply end-of-session accounting gimmicks. Each of them discourages behaviors that add to the costs of health and human services, due to the serious and expensive private and public consequences of smoking cigarettes, alcohol abuse and obesity.

If, in their myopic conception of revenue generation, those opposed to these health impact fees prefer to support continued lung and heart disease, traffic fatalities, and cirrhosis, type-2 diabetes and childhood obesity, let this be their choice.

But the time for constructive efforts to generate revenues is now, and health impact fees are the answer.