posted by Carl V Phillips
Not the plan for the day, but I just came across this post (h/t Snowdon) praising the punishment of the poor via cigarette taxes in New York, which I wrote about here before. It was written by a rather evil woman, Sheelah A. Feinberg, Executive director, NYC Coalition for a Smoke-Free City. Well, maybe she is just misguided. Nah, no one could innocently be quite that misguided.
There is much to say about how awful her post is overall, and I trust others will say more (I will add links if I come across them), so I will stay as on-topic as possible. The background is that research has shown that poor smokers in New York City are spending about 25% of their income on cigarettes — or more precisely, spending almost all of that on cigarette taxes. The anti-smoking zealots who have inflicted those taxes seem to think inflicting that pain is just fine.
As I noted in the previous post, the high taxes are clearly designed to punish people for smoking. All the sputtering protests in the world claiming this is not the true do nothing to diminish that rather obvious point. Feinberg’s post implicitly acknowledges the legitimacy of the criticism of by protesting too much without actually making any arguments that the claim is wrong. She has nothing more to offer than “nuh-uh!”:
Smokers’ rights advocates argue that this proves high taxes on cigarettes are punitive and regressive. We couldn’t disagree more.
First, it is obviously not just smokers’ rights advocates who feel that way. Second, the taxes are clearly regressive, whatever someone’s opinion about smokers or smoking — that is simple arithmetic. So, Feinberg and her crowd fail at simple arithmetic once again. But moving beyond the obvious factual lies that are seemingly inevitable when the tobacco control industry speaks, we get to the interesting bit, the attempt to claim this is not punitive:
High cigarettes taxes are not punitive; they save lives. ….only one element of a comprehensive strategy that has effectively reduced smoking rates well below the national rate. …. The dramatic decline in smoking rates…proves we know what works.
Set aside the fact that anti-smoking activists in places like New York take credit for living somewhere that the demographics are such that smoking will inevitably be lower than the national average. Accept her premise that these policies really get the credit. How do high taxes save lives?
By punishing people for smoking, obviously. Consider a minor variation on her claim:
Imprisonment is not punitive, it reduces crime.
The act of making a behavior more costly to engage in, solely for the purpose of discouraging that behavior, is the definition of punishment. Whatever the goals and the ostensible accomplishments of the punishment, it is still punishment. Thus, the premise of her post consists of two obvious factual errors — so obvious to anyone who gives them any thought that we must assume they are lies.
So does she say anything to try to defend the lies? One sentence:
Higher taxes don’t in fact burden low-income households: smoking does.
That is so crushingly moronic that I have to wonder if Huffington Post even has editors (answer: not really) and if all of its readers will just believe anything their read as long as it represents the “right” politics (answer: apparently). Whether or not smoking burdens poor people (notice the use of “households” — a cute way of trying to bury the fact that we are talking about people), the taxes clearly burden people.
I am guessing that if Feinberg were better at communicating her thoughts, or was not just counting on her naive readers to eat up her claims without noticing obvious falsehoods, she might have said something not quite so stupid like: If people would just stop smoking, then the taxes would not hurt them anymore, so the taxes are not to blame. If she had actually articulated such an argument, it would require a slightly more complicated rebuttal than just pointing out that what she said was patently false.
That rebuttal is based on the concept of the “last clear cost avoider”: In any series of actions that lead to a burden or cost, one of them is the last chance to avoid the cost, and should be thought of as the action that imposed the cost. The law and normal people certainly think of it that way. Assuming this is what Feinberg was trying to communicate, she is making the “argument” that is exemplified by the domestic abuser: “if she hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t have hit her, so it is her own fault”.
Bringing it back to the present case: Tobacco exists. People like it. People do smoke. Therefore, the last chance to avoid the burden imposed by taxes rests with those who impose the taxes. The pro-tax argument is the equivalent of the physical abuser who punches someone for smoking and defends it by saying, “it is not my fault because I told her not to smoke.”
So where does Feinberg retreat from that clear guilt. Of course, it is to the big lies — the fundamental anti-THR lies — that no one wants to use tobacco/nicotine and they only do it because they were tricked and lack willpower:
It is unethical that the poorest New Yorkers are paying cigarette taxes and not getting the most effective help possible to resist tobacco addiction or quit if they’ve already started. We need to implement policies to reduce the tobacco industry’s ability to target low-income populations.
Funny. Her diatribe started out with some words that suggested she wanted to help people. But it ended up at the same old tired place, where people’s welfare is a concept that does not even exist, and all that exists are merely choices to be thwarted. Smokers (poor and otherwise) receive treatment that resembles vermin control: their preferences are of no consequence except where they can be used to manipulate behavior in the desired direction (e.g., by punishing).
It is unethical that the poorest are paying these taxes — that is where that sentence should have ended. But it is also unethical to ignore their other preferences. The best possible option to provide for smokers who do not really prefer to be abstinent from tobacco and nicotine, all else equal (i.e., most smokers), would be a cigarette that was tax-free and harm-free. It is a matter of simple economics that this would clearly improve their lives compared to either the current situation or abstinence.
Is that possible? Not exactly, but close. It is certainly a lot closer to reality than that mythical “the most help possible to resist tobacco addiction”. Encouraging switching to low-risk alternatives, while making sure that such products are sold at competitive market prices, comes remarkably close to eliminating both the risk and the punishing price, while keeping most of the welfare benefits of smoking and perhaps even improving upon them. Given that this is a practical option, and that it is violently rejected by the people who love those taxes, there can be no doubt that not only are they punishing poor people, but they prefer to punish poor people.
Members of the tobacco control industry never actually state the key falsehood that their entire operation is premised on: People get no benefits from smoking/tobacco/nicotine. This is so obviously a lie, that even these perennial liars will not claim it. But it is only this premise that can support their absurd claims about why people smoke, and their implicit claims (seldom made explicit because these are also obvious lies) that people are better off being punished until they do something they are not choosing to do absent the punishment. But it is also exactly this premise (along with the myth of having some secret method for getting everyone to quit) that is the only way for anti-tobacco extremists to defend opposition to THR without having to admit that they do not really care about people.
There are frequently political divides among advocates for THR, advocates for smokers’ rights, and advocates for improving the welfare of downtrodden substance users. But people in these three groups should realize that all three are ultimately fighting against this same absurd premise of no benefits, a premise that appears to trace to people who are either too unintelligent or too close to autistic to be able to think “I would not want to be doing that” without jumping immediately to “and therefore it must be that no one wants to be doing that.”