One of the best things about Gov. Deval Patrick's plan for funding investments in transportation and education is that, by cutting the sales tax while increasing income taxes, it makes the Massachusetts state tax rate more progressive and more fair. Unfortunately, it appears House Speaker Robert DeLeo is only prepared to embrace its least fair component: a punitive increase in cigarette taxes.
Understanding what's wrong with hitting smokers with another dollar or more per pack in taxes begins with understanding something about nicotine and addiction. Scientists have come a long way in understanding the neurochemistry of addiction. They know which parts of the brain encourage and sustain addiction, how certain substances - and certain activities - develop neural pathways that demand more of the addictive substance.
Scientists also know that some people are more susceptible to addiction than others, and that there is a strong genetic component to addiction. There are other ingredients in the mix, but addiction tends to run in families. Research has also found that if you are prone to addiction to one drug, you are susceptible to other addictive substances as well.
Experience underlines the science. While many people consume alcohol or gamble, fewer than 10 percent of them become alcoholics or compulsive gamblers. People in recovery often joke that you can spot an AA meeting by the crowd smoking cigarettes outside the door and by the volume of coffee compulsively consumed inside. Other addictions persist while they try to control their most debilitating habit.
Now, apply these findings to nicotine, one of the most highly addictive substances in widespread use. Heroin addicts have said it's easier for them to kick the opiate habit than give up cigarettes.
So, while millions of people have quit smoking, have some sympathy for the millions standing out in the cold taking their nicotine fix. If they haven't quit, usually it's not for lack of trying. Getting off nicotine is simply far more difficult for them.
The science of addiction is neither radical nor new. Science understands nicotine addiction as an illness or a condition. So why do politicians still treat it as a character flaw? Why do they seek to punish its victims by applying ever higher taxes to the monkeys on the addicts' backs?
Yes, smokers impose higher health costs on their insurance providers and on society. But there is a host of illnesses with lifestyle components: heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure among them. We don't make them pay higher taxes because of their refusal to eat right and get exercise.
Yes, there is a price-point that can help discourage young people from smoking in the first place, and if those genetically prone to addiction never buy their first pack of cigarettes, their lives and health may be saved. But the vast majority of those buying cigarettes are already addicted, and most would quit if they could. How does charging them an extra buck per pack help them?
Page 2 of 2 - The context of the current debate over raising tobacco taxes is even more heartless. All agree the state must invest more in transportation. But why should the burden of repairing the state's roads and bailing out the MBTA fall most heavily on those addicted to nicotine?
A compassionate society doesn't punish the sick for their sicknesses. Responsible public health policy requires multiple approaches to discouraging smoking and helping smokers kick the habit. But what Beacon Hill wants is more state revenue for common needs. It should come from everyone, not just the smokers.
-- MetroWest Daily News