Out of concern for the health of the poor, New York City plans to jack up the price of cigarettes and cigarillos. The rich are still free to smoke themselves into an early grave.
Mayor Michael "He Knows What's Best For You" Bloomberg sent legislation to the city council that would raise the price of cigarettes and cigarillos to $10.50 a pack, the highest in the nation. Some stores were selling cigarettes at $14.50 a pack, according to the New York Post.
The minimum wage in New York state is $7.25 an hour, meaning the working poor will have to work really, really hard for their smokes, or, an increasing choice for many, buy them on the black market. By one estimate, 60 percent of the cigarettes sold in the city are smuggled in from low-cost states.
The price increase is unlikely to hurt the fat cats who think nothing of paying $178 for a box of 25 Cohiba Corona cigars.
The City Council already has banned flavored tobaccos, both cigarettes and smokeless, on the grounds that these products had special appeal to the young. The council banned herb and spice flavorings, "including strawberry, grape, orange, clove, cinnamon, pineapple, vanilla, coconut, licorice, cocoa, chocolate, cherry or coffee." We take a fairly libertarian view on these matters, but if you need heavy lashings of cinnamon and pineapple to get the smoke into your lungs, you really should pick another vice. And you might get both lung cancer and diabetes.
The mayor is fresh off an ill-fated effort to ban sugary drinks to go in cups larger than 16 ounces in order to combat obesity. A patron thirsty enough and with a free hand could order two 16-ounce drinks, but the mayor figures the extra hassle would act as a disincentive.
Again, this is aimed at the poor. Rarely in the offices of your better hedge funds do you see the partners walking the mahogany-lined halls with a 16-ounce Slurpee in either hand. Unfortunately for the mayor, a court recently overturned the ban, but the mayor is nothing if not relentless.
Prohibition was another attempt at looking after the health of the poor and working class, whether they wanted it looked after or not. With many males still in uniform, Congress outlawed beer, wine and whiskey.
It was beer, the preferred drink of the working man, that suffered most. Breweries and beer barrels took up a lot of space and were easy to spot. Besides, footage of revenue agents sledgehammering beer kegs made for good newsreels.
Bootleggers delivered genuine whiskey directly to the doors of the wealthy, who could then develop cirrhosis in relative peace.
The poor had to contend with beverages that may or may not have contained battery acid, zinc and formaldehyde with hints of dead rodents. There were undoubted public-health benefits -- my great-uncle's health no doubt benefited mightily from the exercise he got having to walk around to the back door of his favorite saloon -- but it also engendered a massive disrespect for the law.
During the gas crisis of the '70s, social engineers worried that the poor could only afford the huge gas-guzzlers being dumped on the used-car market when their previous, more well-to-do owners bought zippy little econoboxes.
But it was all for the good health of the poor because they couldn't afford to drive very far or very fast, and if they did have an accident they had the protection of a big, heavy car.
Protecting the poor from themselves is a thankless task. Literally. They never say thank you, so don't hold your breath, Mr. Mayor. Or at least don't hold it very long, because not breathing is not good for your health.
Dale McFeatters writes for the Scripps Howard News Service in Washington.