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A not-so-funny thing happened to the tobacco tax increase on its way through Congress.

What started out as a White House proposal for a 75-cent increase in the tax on a pack of cigarettes has been sliced to the point where a hike of only 45 cents would be phased in over five years.As a result, an initiative that would have raised $11 billion a year to help finance health-care reforms has been reduced so much it would raise only about $4 billion a year.

The reduced increase - just 15 cents a pack in the first year - would be less than the amount that cigarette makers raised prices of their leading brands from 1987 to 1992, so small that smokers would barely notice it.

In other words, this nation's lawmakers have gotten their priorities backwards. Instead of being small and painless, cigarette taxes should be decidedly noticeable and discomforting. Otherwise, they won't have the desired effect of improving public health by discouraging smoking as well as funding better medical programs.

The case for a really stiff tax hike should be beyond dispute. Polls show that a strong majority of Americans, including even those in tobacco-growing states, support a big hike in tobacco taxes as long as the revenue is earmarked for health care. Official estimates indicate that, in addition to the revenue it would raise, a 75-cent increase would save 900,000 lives by reducing smoking.

But the 45-cent increase has prevailed so far simply because the vote of a few lawmakers from tobacco-growing states has been critical at every stage of the debate over health-care reforms. How pointless, considering that the lower tax increase would benefit cigarette manufacturers much more than tobacco farmers. For every dollar spent on cigarettes, 3 cents goes to tobacco growers while 50 cents goes to cigarette makers.

With the 75-cent increase, the federal tax on cigarettes would still come to only 99 cents. By contrast, nine European nations tax cigarettes by between $1 and $3 a pack, while Den-mark and Norway impose taxes of over $3.

What will it take to get Congress to treat the tobacco lobby as a threat to be fought, not a constituency to be placated? Are some of this nation's lawmakers still under the impression that tobacco is just another crop, not a deadly poison?