Smokers Alone Can’t Save Philly Schools

It isn't fair taxing cigarettes so heavily when we've got so many other great vices to pick on.

Out of all the drug dealers in Philadelphia, Wawa has got to be my favorite. They’re always open, never find themselves in between re-ups, and have just about any form of your substance of choice available for purchase — so long as your substance of choice is either tobacco or white sugar (or gasoline, provided you’re into inhalants). From Marlboro to Skoal to Tastykake, our fair city’s fairest convenience retailer is always willing to open up its proverbial trench coat to flash a plethora of multicolored packages ready to provide a certain chemical boost once consumed. Amateurs, they ain’t.

So, naturally, the company’s response to City Council’s vote to impose a $2-a-pack sin tax on cigarettes from last week should come as no surprise. The city, looking to dig our ailing school system out from under its $304 million budget deficit, has placed the burden squarely on the shoulders of Philadelphia’s smoking population by opting to increase their vice’s costs by about a third. The hope, Council president Darrell Clarke told CBS, is that the tax will raise upward of $74 million for the schools.

It’s easy to understand why Council would pin such a capricious tax on smokers right now: Anti-smoking fervor is at its highest point in years thanks to a string of recent crackdowns, and Philadelphia has one of the highest smoking populations in the nation — 25.2 percent as of 2010. That, in the eyes of politicians, is an easily exploitable group — people with an addiction to quell and no one in their right mind to come to their defense. No wonder the tax increased passed.

Here’s the thing: Yes, smoking is unhealthy and will eventually kill you. You absolutely should not do it, but should you choose to, you also should not be discriminated against socially or economically for that choice. Wanting to help people quit is noble, but we’re know that revenue, not health, is the primary goal here. In that sense, taxing cigarette smokers so heavily looks like little more than outright discrimination. If we have to tax vice, Philly has plenty to go around.

Right alongside that huge smoking population, we also have a huge huge population, with 29.3 percent of Philadelphians coming in on the “obese” side of things. We just as easily could institute a cake-and-pie tax and profit heavily off Wawa’s Krimpet and Junior Poundcake sales. Compared to smokers, though, the obese have at least one thing on their side: someone to defend them, and with the AMA officially naming obesity as a disease, that defense doesn’t get much better.

We’re also apparently one of the best cities in the country for infidelity, garnering the number-eight spot on’s “America’s Least Faithful Cities” list after bumping none other than Chicago (which has a $4.68 tax on smokes, incidentally). This city loves sex. Just check out the back of Philadelphia Weekly or City Paper or — were are lousy with hookers. Or you could take a spin down Columbus Boulevard and check out any number of claptrap strip clubs absolutely raking in dough. So why not a sex tax? Charge an extra $2 at entry to all the topless bars in town, or legalize and tax prostitution — it would be just as arbitrary. But, then, I guess we’d rather have smokers than hookers funding our kids’ education. Plus, legalizing prostitution is probably a real bitch.

Oh, I’ve got it! We could try and be like New York and institute a soft drink tax, à la the legendary Mayor Bloomberg. That could help fight Philadelphia’s 11.1 percent diabetes rate and … wait, wait, we already tried that a couple of times with benefitting the school system in mind only to be met with abject failure. Similar measures met the same fate in some 30 other states last year thanks to a combination of pro-soda lobbying and utter incredulity from the constituencies where they were introduced. Maybe the third time’s the charm?

Smokers, it would seem, aren’t the only ones unhappy with targeted, arbitrary taxation, but that population is the last solid resort for bumping revenue for schools without much of a public relations fuss. Politically, however, there are some doubts about the cigarette tax passing in Harrisburg, with State Rep. Michael O’brien telling Newsworks that the “atmosphere in Harrisburg is against any kind of tax increase.” What to tax should this measure fail at the state level, consequently, seems to be anyone’s guess.

Everyone, however, does want to dig Philly schools out of their fiscal hole. Smokers, however, cannot be reasonably expected to foot the bill because their habit offends the general population. After all, they benefit just as much from public education as the obese, the diabetic, and the sex-addicted, and the completely viceless, all of whom are skirting similarly enforceable taxes. The sooner City Hall learns that, the better.