Over the Hill

Tax hike on cigarettes — not a ban — is best way to reduce tobacco use


Tobacco is legal in California — but not welcome.

On Nov. 8, we Californians voted to raise our state cigarette tax from 87 cents per pack to $2.87. The vote was 64 percent “yes” to 36 percent “no.” I voted “yes.”

Then, on Dec. 19, the California Public Employees’ Retirement System voted to expand its ban on investing in tobacco stocks and bonds. CalPERS manages retirement and health benefits for 1.8 million state employees, public-school employees and local public agency employees.

CalPERS will now sell off all of its tobacco investments. They are valued at $547 million. The CalPERS investment committee voted 9-3 to do that. If I could have voted, I would have voted “yes.”

That shows how much times have changed. When I was young, almost everybody smoked. My father smoked cigars and a pipe.

In 1951 during the Korean War, I was drafted into the Army. A large group of us draftees boarded a train in Rochester, New York, bound for Fort Dix, New Jersey. Several public-spirited young ladies saw us off and gave us armloads of cartons of cigarettes. Also, our Army field rations usually included a few cigarettes or a cigar.

When I was a young man, cigarettes were advertised everywhere, including on TV. It was not just a coincidence that doctors started noticing a large increase in lung cancer. In the early 1960s, we also read and heard increasing reports linking smoking to lung cancer and other diseases. I scare easy, so in the summer of 1962, I smoked my last tobacco, a cigar.

I was lucky. Quitting was a lot harder for many other people. Someone near and dear to me tried and tried to quit. She attended several quit-smoking programs and consulted doctors, but with no lasting success. Eventually, after a hospitalization, she succeeded in quitting — but she now has emphysema.

If, however, there’s ever a ballot measure to completely ban tobacco, I will vote “No.” If we prohibit tobacco, I fear that bootleggers and full-fledged criminals will create a tobacco black market. And if enough people are tempted to break the law and buy cigarettes, our law and order will be weakened.

Just look at the history of alcohol Prohibition in our country during the 1920s and early ’30s. Bootlegging booze became a profitable business for gangsters. It led to gang wars and the corruption of local governments. That might happen if we prohibit tobacco products.

But adding the $2 tax increase to the price of a pack of cigarettes may keep some kids from starting to smoke. And it may increase some adults’ motivation to quit.

Of course, CalPERS is also right to get rid of its tobacco investments. State government shouldn’t be financially supporting the smoking industry or profiting from it. The state should be discouraging smoking and seeking to somehow end it.

Phil Dirkx’s column is special to The Tribune. He has lived in Paso Robles for more than four decades, and his column appears here every week. Reach Dirkx at 805-238-2372 or phild2008@sbcglobal.net.