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Friday, May 22, 2009

Newsom's Cigarette Fee Shows Bad Side of Government -- and Media That Cover It

Posted By on Fri, May 22, 2009 at 5:30 AM

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As we wrote on this page earlier discussing Mayor Gavin Newsom's proposed 33-cents a pack "fee" on cigarettes, "it is possible to be on the side of the angels yet still be disingenuous." So we do not shed a tear for the smoker who feels entitled to complain here -- as the pith-helmeted explorer used to say about porters ravaged by lions or drowned in quicksand in old Republic serials, "They knew the risks."

What bothers us is the -- yes -- disingenuous rationale and semantic song-and-dance behind this fee, as well as the simplistic tone of the media coverage has elicited. First of all, this sounds like a "tax" -- but if you ever bring up the "t-word" to politicians or city officials, they react as if they've just been called the wrong name in bed. That's because a "tax" has to be approved by the voters -- often two-thirds of the voters -- while a fee can simply be legislated into existence.

The method of assessing how high a fee should be disturbingly resembles how some folks cheat on their taxes. If you know you have to offset the, say, several thousand dollars you ostensibly owe, you can finagle the numbers to come up with expenditures in work equipment or donations to charities that magically balance everything out.

Similarly, fees often are a way of reverse-engineering a system that justifies doing what you were already going to do. Take the plastic bag fee (sorry, my pet subject) the city put forward several years ago -- before big grocery companies and plastic bag manufacturers pulled the rug out from under San Francisco by lobbying state representatives to pass a law forbidding municipalities from charging such fees.

City officials determined that it'd take a fee of around 15 or 20 cents to actually have an affect on consumers. They plugged in the numbers on how much the city spends cleaning the streets and unclogging drains, factored in what percentage of trash is composed of plastic bags and then divided it out by roughly 50 million plastic bags distributed yearly by the city's largest grocery stores to come up with a fee  of around 17 cents per bag. Wow! Perfect! Never mind the fact that -- as a study by Seattle officials later pointed out -- San Francisco's inclusion of just the 50 million bags from big grocery stores represents less than one-third of the plastic bags handed out every year here. A more honest equation would have only justified a per-bag fee of around 6 cents. But this would have been useless, as that kind of fee wouldn't spur consumers to alter their wasteful habits. Still, even though the numbers weren't in any way connected to real-world situations, this did provide San Francisco with the justification for a 15 to 20 cent fee -- the fee it wanted to impose all along.

Again, this was all rendered moot by state law -- and San Francisco ended up banning plastic bags -- but it gives an idea of the arbitrary nature of fees. The rationale behind Newsom's 33-cents per pack figure isn't nearly as manufactured as the above example -- but does demonstrate remarkably simplistic math and policy thinking. Simply put, the city spends $44 million on cleaning the streets, 25 percent of the trash on the streets is ostensibly cigarette butts, ergo the city spends $11 million cleaning cigarette butts.

Of course life doesn't work nearly so simply; not every item of trash requires the same amount of time to remove and it'd be ludicrous to maintain that sanitation workers would be heading home early if only it weren't for cigarette butts. As we noted before, the city does not employ extra sanitation workers when Costco has a blowout sale on Benson & Hedges. The honest thing to do would be for Newsom to simply state "We need the money and you addicts will pay."

That, in effect, is what the federal government is doing regarding proposed new taxes on alcoholic beverages that would fund health care for uninsured Americans. Sure, alcohol consumption is a leading cause of folks ending up in the hospital -- but at least the federal government is respectful enough of our intelligence (in this case) to not play off that buying a six-pack and insuring the uninsured are more than tangentially connected. In fact, the simple message is that this is an expenditure people will begrudgingly make anyway and the nation has got bills to pay. Wow, honesty!  

Have you heard any discussion of these semantic word games and fuzzy math in the mainstream press? The Chronicle, to its credit, hinted at it, but certainly didn't spell it out. Other papers have simply reported, uncritically, the simplistic rationale the city has used to justify this move. And television has resorted to the tried and true reporting method of "let's see what some local idiots think about this" without any sort of analysis whatsoever.

By the way, it's damn near impossible to predict anyone but tobacco execs and whiny smokers objecting to this because the city is flat broke. Bad times for everyone involved. Smoke 'em if you got 'em.


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About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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