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I was about 11 years old when my friend Gary managed to steal some cigarettes from his mother’s purse and we went to the hidden place at the side of his house to smoke them. We were puffing away when Gary said, “You know, people who smoke these things breathe the smoke in.” “Why do they do that?” I said. “I don’t know,” he said. “But that’s what they do.” I gave it a try, but it didn’t work very well. I coughed, and my eyes watered, and I got dizzy, and I decided I wouldn’t try it again.

I was one of the lucky ones. I never grew accustomed to the kick of nicotine, and though for a time I smoked a pipe, I never got addicted to tobacco. It’s easy for a non-smoker to sound smug about the whole tobacco thing, but I’ve gone through a week-long withdrawal from caffeine – more than once – and nicotine withdrawal, I assume, is far harder than that. So I don’t want to make light of the hold that tobacco has on people.

Even so, I can’t see for the life of me why the Vermont Legislature should be so timid about raising a tax on cigarettes this year. Vermont’s tax is low relative to neighboring states. Vermont needs the money for its health care programs. But most of all, raising the tax in a big way will also cut the use of tobacco in a big way, especially by kids. And if we can make cigarettes so expensive that kids are discouraged from buying them ¿ and their parents are annoyed when the kids steal them – then we’ll head off whole lifetimes of addiction and disease. This is a slam dunk. What is the Legislature thinking? One committee passed a bill calling for a tax increase of 67 cents, but the House leadership doesn’t like the idea. Now there’s a proposal to raise the tax 36 cents, which may be a level just low enough not to do any good.

I know my friends who smoke are going to be rolling their eyes and wishing I would just butt out. They don’t need do-gooders like me saving them from their vices. But you can’t run away from the knowledge that you have. And as a public health issue, tobacco use is at the top of the list. It costs Vermont hundreds of lives every year and millions of dollars. We freak out about tiny traces of chemicals in what we eat and breathe, but when it comes to inhaling deadly poisons, the question somehow becomes an issue of personal choice and economics.

The Legislature would do well to raise the tax higher than the 67 cents first proposed. Why not? Are we afraid of hurting the business of merchants who sell cigarettes? How can that be when it is the implicit purpose of our Health Department to hurt their business. That’s the whole point. We want fewer cigarettes sold and fewer lives lost because of tobacco. What is the argument about?

This is David Moats from Middlebury.

David Moats is the Editorial Page Editor for the Rutland Herald and winner of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing.

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