Cough It Up

/ Filed under Column, Self

Philadelphia smokes cigarettes. A lot of cigarettes. It holds the distinction of being the smokin’-est of America’s ten biggest cities. As of 2012, one in four adults in Philadelphia are smokers. And yesterday, Gov. Tom Corbett deputized that legion of smokers as official benefactors of the city’s failed school district.

In what WHYY’s Newsworks called a “tremendous victory” for Philadelphia schools, the state senate approved funding for a measure passed by the city council in 2013 when Mayor Michael Nutter called for a “New York style” cigarette tax. Proponents of the tax offered the profoundly optimistic figure of $49 million dollars, which they say will flow into the district’s empty coffers before the end of the school year. That may seem like enough dough to make Newsworks reporter Kevin McCorry speak in such glowing terms. But he buried the lede, which comes in the form of a quote from state senator Vincent Hughes of Philadelphia:

“We should be very clear that that this new stream of local funding does not scratch the surface of what the School District of Philadelphia truly needs to offer real opportunities to all of our students.”

This, McCorry wrote, was a statement of “restrained enthusiasm” for the tax.

Maybe restraint is exactly what’s called for. Enthusiasm wanes when you consider a study conducted by Drexel University business professor Dr. Mark Stehr, which suggests that a two dollar tax on every pack of cigarettes will discourage as many as 8,000 adult smokers from lighting up. This seems to corroborate the Congressional Budget Office’s finding that “a 10% increase in cigarette prices would motivate people under age 18 to reduce their smoking by 5-15%, and people older than 18 by 3-7%,” as reported by Lauren Reed-Guy in September of last year. (When the majority of sellers make cigarettes available at $5 a pack now, the new tax would raise the price by 40%.)

These kinds of punitive taxes aimed at smokers are typically proposed to help curb rising health care costs, not unlike the Bloombergian restrictions on sodas and fast food. Taxing vice in order to bail out a floundering school system is a different matter entirely, sort of like throwing a life preserver onto the shore as the tide is going out. “Philadelphia is an anomaly,” writes Reed-Guy. “While the national smoking rate has been falling consistently since 1960, it’s fallen the least here.” And there are easy enough ways to avoid the tax entirely, by buying loosies on the street or getting your smokes from out of town.

I anticipate the retort, “At least it’s something.” Sure, it might not be $49 million dollars but it’s going to bring some money in. And if it gets people to give up the smokes, it’s a win-win, right? Not so fast.

Consider first of all what it means that Philly is a city of wheezers. According to the CDC, one third of all smokers are below the poverty line. Only 15% of smokers have a college degree. The poorest areas in Philadelphia have the highest smoking rates. That’s where this new revenue will be coming from to save Philly’s schools — the very communities that have been chronically neglected because the state can’t be bothered to pay for the upkeep.

And take note of Sen. Hughes careful reminder that the source of this funding is local. Because aside from being the smoking capital of big U.S. cities, Philadelphia also the poorest major metropolis in the country. staff writer Will Bunch reported in May that “about 13 percent of Philadelphians — or nearly 200,000 people — live in deep poverty, meaning a family of three makes less than $9,700 dollars a year, which is 50 percent of the official poverty line.” Once known as the World’s Workshop, Philadelphia has experienced a steady and ongoing drift into ruin. Take a drive up I-95 to the Northeast and you’ll pass a graveyard of shuttered factories. In the Navy Yard where Philadelphians built the fleet that fought in World War II, only recently have corporate offices started replacing the myriad warehouses that lay empty and abandoned for decades.

So while it may boast a large population and fall into formation along with Boston, New York, and Baltimore, Philadelphia looks more like a Rust Belt town that hasn’t ever recovered from the post-industrial slump of the latter 20th century. A result of that slump is that we Philadelphians smoke at rates more commonly found in the deep South.

Another symptom of Philly’s decline is that it’s schools are bankrupt. This week the City Council moved to borrow another $30 million dollars to keep open the few school doors that weren’t permanently barred in the rash of closures that infuriated parents and teachers across the city. This is on top of the $27 million that was borrowed in June. So even if those hopeful projections about the cigarette tax prove correct, the school district will still be in the hole.

Governor Corbett, of course, was happy to finally sign something that made him appear to be addressing this catastrophe. His tenure is marked by budget cuts that have ravaged the city’s schools. As his School Reform Committee funnels millions to for-profit vendors, it’s laid off close to 4,000 public employees including nearly 300 teachers. 23 schools were shut down last summer while Corbett administration was busy approving funding for a $400 million dollar prison facility in Montgomery County, just outside the city. Corporate tax breaks in Pennsylvania saved businesses $2.3 billion dollars at a time where the “impact fee” for natural gas companies here is lower than any other state. After Comcast and other corporations squawked, the city council turned down an opportunity to mandate paid sick leave for Philly workers who are often paid little more than the suffocating $7.25 an hour minimum wage.

But by all means, tax the smokers. By all means, call this weak nod to school reform a “tremendous victory.”

To summarize:  the state has agreed to slap an incredibly regressive tax on poor Philadelphians to fund their own schools after squeezing the district’s budget in favor of making the state more comfy for corporate parties who pay their employees next to nothing. And even at the projected revenue from the cigarette tax — which, as demonstrated, is optimistic at best and, at worst, purposefully misleading — won’t even “scratch the surface” of the school district’s funding problem. I fear that when the time comes to actually solve the budget crisis there will be less resolve to raise taxes on people who can actually afford to pay them — because didn’t we just give the schools $49 million dollars?

It’s easy to tell smokers to cough up more cash because they have much less capacity to lobby on their own behalf than Philadelphia’s wealthy and corporate ‘communities,’ a clan that also unsurprisingly comprises the political ‘donor community.’ Just in time for the 2014 elections, the whole of Harrisburg can claim to have reached across the aisle in the spirit of bipartisanship to punish one of the most loathsome groups in the country. What could be more politically expedient? Just like the English middle class in Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier, the American middle class has always taught its children that the working class smelled– in this case, that they smell like tobacco.


Note: See here for Kevin McCorry’s interesting investigation into how cigarette tax revenues are projected.

Special thanks to John F. Williamson for his editorial contribution to this article.



Share Your Thoughts

  • peterghintz

    This part in particular is right on: “Taxing vice in order to bail out a floundering school system is a
    different matter entirely…”

    The simple fact is that the city is attempting to pay for a necessity on the back of a luxury. Even removing factors of income, geography, etc. this a terrible idea at its core.

    • Ted Kelly

      Well put. If the the state senate were serious about raising revenue for the school district this tax would, at most, be a complement to a broader budget proposal.