New York - Taxes for Your Health. Yeah, Sure.
New York Times By Clyde Haberman.
New York - Thank Heaven for those of you in New York who behave self-destructively. Without you, what would the politicians do to balance their budgets? There they were in Albany on Monday exploring ways to dip into your pockets once again.
You know who you are. You there, dragging on that cigarette. You over there, chugging on a 20-ounce bottle of Coke. You with the Jim Beam in your hand. Yes, you standing in line at the corner grocery to buy your 25th lottery ticket of the week.
All of you — most of you, anyway — are damaging yourselves in one form or another. That cigarette will do you in. The soda will help make you fat and do nothing for you nutritionally. The booze may create a nice buzz, but drinking too much of it will pickle your liver. And while it’s always possible that fate will smile and make you a lottery millionaire, you have probably just thrown away hard-earned dollars to chase a pipe dream.
But the city and the state love you guys. Human frailty is one of the essentials that keep them afloat.
The politicians, especially those in Albany, could try something really radical to resolve their budget crises. Spend less, for instance. They could try living within their means for a change, as normal people are supposed to, instead of promising more than can possibly be delivered without mortgaging the future.
But cutting spending is such a drag. It is so much easier to raise money by taxing you for doing things you shouldn’t be doing in the first place — and then assuring you that it’s for your own good.
It is also so much easier because, as this column has observed in the past, those most likely to be taxed are poor people. Almost by definition, they wield the least political power.
Generally speaking, the poor spend a disproportionate amount of their limited resources on cigarettes, on sugar-laced soft drinks, on liquor and on the state-run numbers game known as the New York Lottery.
The rich have the means to eat more healthfully. (A popular high-end food chain isn’t nicknamed Whole Paycheck for nothing.) They tend to indulge in vices other than smoking and to seek comfort in fine wines, which are taxed at rates far lower than those for cheap booze. As for gambling, the stock market is their preferred mode. You don’t see many Armani suits at the corner store buying Pick 10 tickets.
The latest example of squeezing the less affluent is a scramble by the governor and legislative leaders to avoid a government shutdown. An important element of an emergency budget bill that was passed on Monday is a $1.60-per-pack increase in the cigarette tax. It will send the cost of a pack in New York City soaring to more than $11 in some stores.
Taxes will also be raised on other tobacco products, including cigars. That, at least, has an equal-opportunity flavor that has often been lacking in past assaults on smoking. You may not legally light up a Lucky in a bar catering to working stiffs. But puff on an expensive Montecristo? That indulgence is still permitted in several upscale cigar bars in the city. Rich men always manage to catch a break.
The state hopes to raise $440 million a year through new tobacco taxes. That includes money from Indian tribes, whose most visible escape from poverty is to become cigarette peddlers and croupiers.
There are visions, perhaps not destined to be realized for now, of raising hundreds of millions more by way of a penny-per-ounce tax on sodas and other sweetened drinks that are the vin ordinaire of the poor. There is also an eternal desire in Albany to get the people who can least afford it to feed their money into video slot machines at local racetracks.
The official line is that taxes on tobacco and soda are principally health measures; the extra revenue for the state is but a pleasant side benefit. Sure it is.
No doubt, we would all be better off if no one smoked or consumed junk food and drinks. Should grocery stores lose income in the process, so be it. But make no mistake: improved health is the side benefit in this situation. The goal is to raise money any way possible so Albany can avoid having to take a deep breath and end its cherished habit of living beyond its means.
If these taxes were really about public health, the politicians would have acted long ago instead of waiting till now, when the state is broke and they are desperate.