Smoke ‘Em If You Gotta

A quarter of a century ago, the state of Oregon was in an economic hole. It was the midst of what I’ve always throught of as the First Reagan Recession, areas of the state had unemployment rates unseen since the Great Depression (and some have never really recovered).

Gambling’s always had its place in Oregon, but until the 1980s it was mostly conducted out of sight, as it was in much of the rest of the country. That all changed with the creation of the Oregon Lottery, which was pitched in those dark times as a way to capture money people would otherwise spend on gambling and funnel a portion of it to the state for economic development.

Since then the lottery has grown from scratch card games to sports betting to video poker and slots, making the state more than $600 million a year (with an equivalent amount being paid out in winnings). Far from being something that people did on the sly, the public benefits of gambling can now be celebrated on TV, billboards, at the counters of grocery stores, and on the front page of the paper. To paraphrase Gordon Gekko — another ’80s icon — Gambling is Good.

I figure once Measure 50, the tobacco tax that’s being promoted as a way to expand health care for uninsured children and something I think everyone in the state ought to be paying for, is approved by the electorate, the cigarette companies will just find a way around the restrictions on advertising tobacco products. The anticipated rise in cost is only expected to reduce overall smoking by a few percent.

A report from Tobacco Free Kids — a supporter of Measure 50 — has some of the rationale for what this tax is really about (my italics):

The New Revenues from Raising Oregon’s Cigarette Tax Rate will be Stable and Predictable for Years to Come

Year to year, state cigarette tax revenues are more predictable and less volatile than many other state revenue sources, such as state income tax or corporate tax revenues, which can vary considerably year to year because of nationwide recessions or state economic slowdowns. In sharp contrast, large drops in cigarette tax revenue from one year to the next are quite rare because of the addictive power of cigarettes – the heaviest smokers, who are the most addicted and most resistant to quitting, cause total state pack sales and revenues to decline by smaller amounts, proportionately. After a major cigarette tax increase, state tobacco tax revenues typically decline by only about two percent per year, on average, because of ongoing reductions in smoking levels.

Which is why I’m getting a jump on the next wave of sin tax promotion. Once the tobacco companies figure out they can team up with the state to promote tobacco use under the guise of advertising the economic benefit of Measure 50 to children’s health, well, I should be able to put my natural cynicism to work doing the ads. And I don’t even smoke!

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