Illinois May Tax Cigarettes to Pay for Higher Education

September 21, 2009

We have blogged on the talk of an income tax increase to be considered by the Illinois legislature early next year. But lawmakers still have the fall session, and on the table at that time will be a cigarette tax increase of $1 per pack. Governor Pat Quinn’s idea is to use the cigarette tax revenue to fund college scholarships for Illinois residents.

Putting aside the debate on whether or not governments should even be subsidizing higher education in the first place, there are serious problems with a cigarette tax to pay for higher education. There is no connection between the two activities, and such a funding arrangement would make about as much sense as funding higher education with a tax on kayak paddles.

Why should smokers, who tend to be lower income, be forced to subsidize the education of people who will likely go on to make many times more than the smoker over their lifetime? If higher education were really a public good then it should be funded by those who benefit, namely the general public, not a politically unpopular minority like smokers.

Cigarette taxes are often used by politicians because smokers are an easy target and politicians can claim they are just trying to protect smokers from themselves. The same argument could be made to justify a tax on kayak paddles to pay for higher education. Whitewater kayaking is, after all, a dangerous and potentially lethal activity, and people are obviously over-participating and doing themselves harm. A good stiff tax on paddles would help individuals make better decisions and would reduce the government’s emergency response costs. And at the same time the money raised from irrational kayakers can pay for the further education of us rational non-kayakers.

We’ve written many times before on the problems with common justifications for cigarette taxation.


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