Leader Blues

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

TOP STORY>>Tobacco lobby sends Dr. Death from Texas

By GARRICK FELDMAN
Leader editor-in-chief

Dick Armey of Texas, the former Republican majority leader in the House of Representatives who’s now a pitchman for Big Tobacco, came to Little Rock yesterday to lobby against raising the tax on tobacco.

Dr. Death has found a new calling after running his party off a cliff while he was in office.

He now heads an outfit called FreedomWorks, which is a front for the tobacco industry. Backers include an heir to the RJReynolds Tobacco fortune and UST, which makes smokeless tobacco.

This is an industry that kills off its customers. Nearly 5,000 Arkansans die from smoking-related deaths every year, or about $5 million a year in lost sales on the wholesale level. That’s why the tobacco companies oppose raising taxes — they need new smokers to replace the dead ones, but the industry has to keep prices low, or kids won’t pick up the habit.

It’s doubtful Armey, a former economics professor, can convince enough state legislators to kill the bill, which has the backing of Gov. Beebe. Do they want a Texan to lobby the legislature? No more than they would adopt the Longhorns as our new football mascot.

There’s one Arkansas lawmaker Armey will never convince to vote with the tobacco lobby. That’s Rep. Walls McCrary (D-Lonoke), whose parents died because of tobacco.

Like many legislators, he received a donation from a tobacco company during his campaign, but he sent the check back, McCrary said last week.

“When I was 29, my father died of lung cancer,” he told The Leader. “He came back from World War II and couldn’t kick the habit. Ten years later I lost mom to second-hand smoke. I wondered how long I was going to make it.”

The bill will go before a House committee on Wednesday and could be voted on before the full House on Thursday. It needs a three-fourths majority for passage, but as many as 10 Republicans are said to be supporting the bill, which would raise $87.8 million.

Richard Beardon, the former executive director of the Arkansas Republican Party and now a lobbyist for a Memphis hospital, and Rep. Rick Green, R-Van Buren, among other Republicans, threw their support behind the tax Monday, and others in his party will likely join them.

The tax would pay for trauma centers and other health-care programs.

The liquor industry should help establish the trauma centers with higher taxes on alcohol. Drunks cause most highway accidents, which require transportation to trauma centers. Higher taxes on gambling would also generate revenue for those programs.

Arkansas is following a national trend as state legislatures and Congress look for new revenues during hard times. Why not raise sin taxes on all aberrant behavior?

If passed, the tobacco tax would increase by 57 cents a pack to $1.15, or about the same as the national average. The national tax could go up another 56 cents a pack, bringing the cost of a pack of cigarettes to about $5, which sounds just about right.

The Mississippi House of Representatives recently raised the tax from 18 cents per pack to $1. The Senate approved a 49-cent increase, so they’ll hash out their differences and probably settle for 75 cents or more per pack.

The tobacco tax will reduce smoking and save thousands of lives, while increasing revenues because hardcore smokers cannot quit their addiction until they drop dead.

You raise the cigarette tax 10 percent, and almost as many people will kick the deadly habit. The cost of health care goes down, especially when hardcore smokers — with their heart and lung disease and a myriad of other problems — kick the bucket.

Dick Armey and the industry he represents want to hook kids by keeping taxes low. But people who’ve seen their loved ones die from cigarettes hope to discourage others from smoking by making it more expensive.

The tobacco industry is anti-life. Armey and his flunkies are the Pol Pots of American capitalism.