I’m going to be self-indulgent and reprint a story I wrote a while back, that has not appeared in this blog….
I was the Town Clerk in a small southern Arizona town, and John McCain was and is a Senator from that state. It was prior to one of his now famous “town halls” that he was sitting in the chair by my desk, making small talk about the major topic of the day: smoking. Or more correctly, the 60 cent per pack tax that was on the ballot in the upcoming general election in Arizona. This tax would raise the price of a pack of cigarettes to well over $2.00 at the time and was to be used by the State partly to educate young people not to engage in the habit. All because then Governor Jane Dee Hull and the legislature had cut the funding for the Tobacco Education and Prevention Program. Know as TEPP. A very successful program and well know nationally, which was launched in 1996. I smoked. I wasn’t happy about another tax on cigarettes.
John McCain had been an admitted two-pack a day smoker for 25 years, and had finally kicked the habit in 1980. He had some health issues related to skin cancer and just plain decided that smoking wasn’t a good idea. Maybe because he thought he needed more time to get to the presidency. A lot was made of it in the press at the time, as I remember, a lot of it front page.
This proposed increase in the cigarette tax was a pretty big topic of discussion in the small town of Sahuarita, Arizona also. A majority of the town council, town manager, and town staff, smoked. None of us was in favor of paying 60 cents more in tax for a pack of cigarettes. That would bring the total tax on a pack of cigarettes to $1.18, almost doubling the cost.
I argued with John McCain, while he was sitting in my office chair, that it would hurt the low-income individuals the most. How about the fixed incomes? Senior citizens made up the majority of the population in this small community and they had been smoking since smoking was cool. Some of these people in their eighties still smoking two packs a day of Pall Mall Reds and Camels. TEPP advertising wasn’t having any effect on them for sure.
By the way, if you had seen these ads, you would have wondered why we were spending tax money on this drivel. They were almost sickeningly humorous. Talked about for their weirdness, sure, but effect, I didn’t think so, especially with the teens they were targeting. We all thought they were being produced by some Madison Avenue ad agency. In actuality though, they were done by a local Phoenix company which grew to be one of the largest ad agencies in the state, predominantly from the TEPP contract money. I wouldn’t waste time betting that there wasn’t some shady negotiation in that contract award.
Arizona only spends a small 4.5% of the estimated $518.4 million in tobacco-generated revenue on educating the masses of the ills of smoking. I should mention that some of that five hundred million dollars is part of the tobacco settlement payments and not a result of the cigarette tax.
I continued my argument that smokers shouldn’t have to pay to educate people not to smoke. Shouldn’t that come for that very tobacco settlement and not from me? And how about the loss in tax revenue if the program really was effective and people stopped buying cigarettes?
I also maintained that banning smoking, getting rid of Joe Camel and educating against tobacco use was only serving to make it more attractive to kids. Even if they were showing ads on TV with blackened lungs in jars, and people having their cancerous jaws removed, and people with artificial voice boxes. The bottom line is it was a forbidden thing, and that made it real attractive to a teenager.
McCain generally agreed with my points, or so it seemed, but issued the prerequisite response.
“You really need to quit,” he said.
I used my prerequisite response to everyone who says that to me.
“I have quit, Senator McCain, quitting is easy. I’ve quit at least a hundred times.” I think I’m funny but admittedly steal a lot of my lines.
“I quit smoking over ten years ago,” he said, “and let me tell you, the craving never goes away. I still want a cigarette right now.”
He paused for a second. Looked out my window to the desert outside, and then turned back to look me in the eyes.
It’s my own personal McCain story. It might not be much, but it happened, although the witnesses are nil. The cigarette tax issue did come up during the town hall discussion, but it centered around the impact the added cost would have on the residents there. John McCain just gave them a lot of political lip service, but didn’t talk about his personal smoking experience.
The cigarette tax initiative passed by a very, and I mean very, slim margin. It was something like 17 votes. It was hailed as a victory and a clear indication that the citizens of Arizona wanted TEPP and thought it was worth the millions being spent. That figure being around $23 million per year. And it has, according to sources, resulted in significant decreases in the ranks of smokers both adult and young adult (18-24) in Arizona. They also claim a reduction in the number of smokers that are low-income and low education (their labels). Ya think? But do you think, really, that the Tobacco Education and Prevention Program’s $23 million dollars was responsible for that? It was a direct result of Arizonans voting to double the price of a pack of cigarettes and give over 50% of the cost to the state.
And let me tell you, they lied and told us the money would be used for additional health care expenses that smokers bring to the table. Instead they ended up with a huge budget surplus that ended up in the general fund, and they spent it anyway they saw fit.
I still smoke. I still pay exorbitant taxes for the pleasure, or whatever you want to call it: habit, addiction, rebellion against society. It’s probably the most unfair, yet profitable for the states, tax there is.
And if they’re hugely successful in their attempts to reduce the number of smokers in Arizona, they’re going to have a serious budget shortfall. Might want to think about that.