Banning Smoking on Oregon’s Beaches

Right From the Start

Right From the Start

The do-gooders of Oregon’s Nanny State are at it again. Recent news articles detail a proposal by the Oregon Parks Department to ban smoking on Oregon’s beaches. The alleged purpose is to reduce the amount of litter and debris on Oregon’s beaches. Horse Puckey.

[It drives me nuts but anytime you criticize “political correctness” you are obligated to state your bona fides – it reduces, but does not eliminate, the likelihood of personal attacks in lieu of logical or factual debates. But here it is anyway – I quit smoking forty-one years ago. The smell of smoke in a closed area is offensive and I try to avoid such situations. I have benefited from the ban on smoking in bars and restaurants although I would have preferred that the owners and managers would have come to the conclusion that it was good business for them and undertaken a voluntary ban as their customers dictated. At any rate, I don’t like smoking and I don’t like the smell of people who do smoke. And I don’t need the Nanny State to protect me from them.]

We spent the 4th of July weekend at Cannon Beach with friends, our children and grandchildren. The ocean and beaches are magical for small children and so we passed our fair share of time walking the beaches and watching them play. Compared to Oregon’s highways – chock full of litter – Oregon’s beaches are near pristine. During our time on the beach I encountered beer and soda cans, empty boxes of juice, filament from nets and fishing lines, the odd pair of women’s underwear, condoms, sandwich bags, abandoned toys, kite parts, dead fish, pet poop, newspapers and other paper goods. What I didn’t encounter were cigarette butts – not a one. In contrast, I drove over to I-5 and walked a couple hundred yards of I-5 near Wilsonville. I could hardly walk ten feet without seeing yet another cigarette butt amid the mountains of other garbage tossed from cars.

So let’s not kid ourselves. Gov. Kitzhaber’s Parks Department isn’t really trying to reduce litter on Oregon’s beaches. It’s just another way to demonstrate how pure of heart Oregon’s liberals are by attacking tobacco without really eliminating its use. That’s right, as righteous as Oregon’s liberals profess to be they are addicted to the revenue generated by tobacco taxes. While they sniff in disgust, wave their hands and feign coughing in the presence of tobacco, they will not act to eliminate it because they want the money.

The health risks of smoking or chewing tobacco have been pretty well documented and are generally accepted. The health care costs attended to diagnosing and treating the aftermath of smoking are also well documented and accepted. Taxpayers wind up bearing a substantial portion of these costs because a disproportionate number of low-income people use tobacco products. According to the Center for Disease control (CDC) approximately 19.0 percent of adults use tobacco products. However, 29.0 percent of adults living below the poverty level use them. There is a racial component to smoking and healthcare costs. Again, according to the CDC, while the percentage of Blacks (19.4%) using tobacco products is approximately the same as the national average of adults using, and slightly lower than Whites (20.6 percent), the incident of lung cancer is substantially higher. Blacks make up a disproportionate share of the nation’s poor and these percentages demonstrate that those with less suffer a disproportionate burden of both smoking and its effects.

A 2013 report by the Tax Policy Institute, indicated that tobacco tax revenues grew nationally from $3.6 Billion in 1977 to $17.7 Billion in 2011 (Oregon’s revenues grew from $31.8 Million to $262 Million.) A report by RJ Reynolds noted:

Here are some of the facts about tobacco taxes today:  

    • Since 1998, governments at all levels have collected more than $484.6 BILLION in cigarette taxes (including sales tax) and payments from smokers.
    • Settlement payments, federal, and state and local taxes on cigarettes for fiscal year 2012 amounted to more than $43.3 BILLION.

– Federal excise taxes – $14,870,000,000
– State and local excise taxes – $17,446,492,000
– State cigarette sales taxes – $4,207,463,000
– Tobacco settlement payments – $7,190,051,472

 The government per-pack profit from cigarettes in 2012 was $3.78 (or 66 percent of the cost of a pack of cigarettes); almost ten times the profit of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company.”

A 2013 study by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids indicates that the vast majority of states, including Washington, Oregon and California have spent less than twenty-five percent (Oregon – 17.5%) of their tobacco settlement funds on efforts to reduce tobacco use. The study concludes:

“In Fiscal Year 2014, the states will collect $25 billion in revenue from the tobacco settlement and tobacco taxes, but will spend only 1.9 percent of it – $481.2 million – on programs to prevent kids from smoking and help smokers quit. This means the states are spending less than two cents of every dollar in tobacco revenue to fight tobacco use.” The vast majority of the revenues go to the state’s General Fund where eighty-five percent of expenditures are for public employees salaries and their inflated healthcare and retirement benefits. (Oregon’s Democrat lawmakers are so giddy over the prospects of a new line of revenue from taxing marijuana that they are virtually ignoring the problems that Colorado and Washington are already experiencing with the legalization of marijuana in those states.)

But attacking cigarettes as a source of litter on Oregon’s beaches allows Oregon’s liberal politicians to appear resolute without any effective action. Listen, any day of the week that Oregon wants to eliminate tobacco use it can do so with the stroke of a pen. The “Commerce Clause” of the United States Constitution may prevent Oregon from actually making tobacco use illegal, but it does not prevent Oregon from imposing a tax so high that it effectively eliminates it. I’m not sure what the tax rate would be but I’m guessing the fifty dollars a pack ought to do it. Such a tax will not only eliminate the use of tobacco, it will also eliminate the revenue from cigarette taxes. (Again for those of you forced to endure a teachers union led education in Portland public schools, that means when the price – including tax – eliminates the purchase, the revenues drop to zero. Zero times $50 is zero.)

But, because the addiction to tobacco revenues is so great, the state engages in what is called “price/volume regression analysis” – a means of determining the effects of price changes on the volume of sales. The point is that at any given time there is a point at which increasing a price will reduce the volume of sales to a point where less total revenues are derived. That point changes from time to time and is often related to the delta between the current price and the desired price increase. And so it is with tobacco. Federal, state and local governments are more than willing to increase the taxes on tobacco, but they are unwilling to increase them to the point of diminishing returns let alone elimination of returns. That tax burden is among the most regressive that exists. A disproportionate number of low income people smoke and they must pay the tax for such a vice. The very states which call out to protect the least able, profit greatly from their addiction.

The proposal to ban smoking on Oregon’s beaches is much like driving a Chevrolet Volt – it doesn’t really do much for the environment but it allows the owner to revel in the appearance of doing good. The same can be said of Oregon’s 2010 increase in fines for littering to $6,250. That’s dramatic but not a dime increase has been dedicated to enforcing that fine and Oregon’s roadways in some places look like abandoned housing projects in Detroit, Michigan. But Oregon’s politicians can feel good about themselves for having acted without really doing anything.

There is a difference between doing good and appearing to do good. Unfortunately, Oregon’s dominant Democrat party hasn’t learned the difference.