King James I, author of "Counterblast to Tobacco," denounced tobacco as "harmful to the brain and dangerous to the lungs"- this in the 17th century -and increased taxes on it 4,000 percent. Now Virginia, the state that began with Jamestown settlement, named after James I, has flinched from increasing cigarette taxes even half as much as it should.
A rejected bill would have put the tax at 20 cents a pack. Virginia's tax has been 21/2 cents since 1966, when it was cut from 3 cents. The national average is 24 cents. The nation's highest, Hawaii's, is 47 cents.Taxing cigarettes when tobacco is the state's largest cash crop may be hazardous to political health, but a 20-cent tax would obviate the need for many unpopular budget cuts and increases in state fees and charges. North Carolina, where 56 percent of America's cigarettes are made, recently was driven by budget problems to raise the per-pack tax from 2 to 5 cents. Tobacco is a waning force there: The number of tobacco farms fell from 100,000 to 41,800 between the mid-1980s and 1991, and poultry now is a bigger business.
The tax treatment of tobacco is relevant to today's entwined arguments about health care and budget deficits. Americans spend 13 percent of the GNP on health care, $2.2 billion a day. There would be huge savings if Americans drank moderately, drove sensibly, exercised regularly, ate prudently and smoked not at all. Two of today's expensive epidemics - crack and AIDS - also are primarily "chosen calamities" - results of dangerous behavior.
Smoking is the leading preventable cause of death. It kills more people than the combined toll of AIDS, cocaine, heroin, alcohol, fire, automobile accidents, homicide and suicide. Today's national campaign against smoking is a paradigm of sound policy against optional problems.
Consider California, where in 1988 (the year lung cancer surpassed breast cancer as the leading cause of women's cancer deaths nationwide) voters enacted, by referendum, a 25-cent increase (to 35 cents) in the cigarette tax to fund tobacco education, medical care and research. In three years the percentage of Californians smoking has declined 17 percent.
Canadians were heavier smokers per capita than Americans as recently as 1989. No more. Consumption has declined about 25 percent in three years. Virtually all cigarette advertising is banned and health warnings must cover 20 percent of the front and back of a pack.
Tobacco companies, denying it all the way, work to hook tomorrow's cancer victims young.
The growth of the U.S. tobacco industry is primarily overseas. About a quarter of all U.S.-made cigarettes are exported (many to Japan), and about 40 percent of raw tobacco grown here is sold abroad. On the home front, the latest survey of U.S. college freshman reveals that both liberalism and smoking are again increasing on campus. Foolish choices jeopardize public health.