A Tale of Two Laws

I was a pretty stereotypical sixteen year old.  Back in 2004, the world was my playground and I felt like I could get away with murder.  In between debate tournaments and concerts, there was little to worry about.  Still, two alarming but expected trends came with my sixteenth year: cars and cigarettes.

On the one hand, I got my permit and learned how to drive.  Sure, a young driver is a dangerous thing, and I wasn’t the most responsible sixteen year old.  Given inexperienced drivers such as myself, it made sense for New Jersey to have restrictions on young drivers (don’t drive after midnight, don’t have a bunch of rowdy friends in your car, etc).  I may not ideologically agree with the state government playing nanny when my parents could have, but I commend the instinct to slowly introduce young drivers to the road.  At least in theory, restrictions on young drivers are saving many more lives than they aren’t.

On the other end of my adolescent lifestyle were cigarettes.  Despite knowing how terrible, dangerous, and unappealing the little death sticks were, I caved.  Chalk it up to peer pressure?  I’m not sure I’ll ever be sure why I started smoking.  What is certain is that I found every possible way to get around age requirements for purchase.  I kept smoking, and as an added bonus began paying outrageous tax rates to the State.  See, New Jersey has some of the highest rates for a pack of cigarettes in the country, and the motivation for such high taxes is discouraging an unhealthy behavior.  A lot of smokers pay the outrageously high taxes anyway.  In a perfect world, this also makes sense: those who do choose to smoke can get their cigarettes elsewhere, or fund programs aimed at discouraging cigarette smoking.

So let’s summarize the sixteen year old life: onerous restrictions on driving and smoking.  Also part of being sixteen?  Not knowing how badly a state can screw up good laws.  Two unrelated but fitting news stories appeared in the last twenty-four hours, showing how far New Jersey has come on youth driving and cigarettes.  First:

New Jersey raised $750 million last year from taxes on cigarettes and other tobacco products, but it spent only $1.5 million on antismoking programs, according to a report released Wednesday by the American Cancer Society.

Health advocates on Wednesday called on Gov. Christie and the Legislature to direct at least a dime of each dollar the state collects in tobacco taxes to programs aimed at reducing youth smoking and helping tobacco users quit.

….Cigarette taxes – which at $2.70 a pack are the sixth-highest in the nation – also help pay off debt New Jersey took out in 2005, Pratt said.

More than half of the tax money goes toward aid to hospitals, including charity-care subsidies to treat low-income uninsured patients, [Treasury Spokesman Andrew Pratt] said.

Also known as your tax dollars.

I doubt anyone is prepared to criticize the use of sin taxes to help the uninsured, but these data go a long way in showing how useless the cigarette tax concept has become in New Jersey.  The state could just as easily be paying off its debt by a) raising taxes on millionaires b) solving corruption c) not pumping billions of dollars into wasteful or misguided infrastructure projects or d)charging fees for Chris Christie’s self-serving media appearances (joking- maybe).  Let’s be clear here: if cigarette taxes aren’t being used for addiction treatment programs, than they shouldn’t be used at all.  This sort of practice creates a cycle and expectation whereby anytime the state needs to raise money for itself, it raises “sin” taxes.  Meanwhile, budgetary trickery and poor spending practices continue unabated.  So, in a hypothetical scenario, let’s assume that the State of New Jersey needs additional revenue.  They raise cigarette taxes again, but do little to combat the trend of people who still smoke.  Anyone who has gone to Delaware for cigarettes or bought a loosie in New York will tell you that smoking isn’t going to go away any time soon.

The core lesson in all this is that this practice of using cigarette taxes for other means is unsustainable.  It sets a precedent of raising taxes for any and all budgetary matters.  There should be a very real fear in urban areas that the policies of New Jersey and New York City on cigarette taxes could translate to other products.  Imagine if cigarette taxes no longer were producing high revenues.  It seems very plausible that officials would turn their heads to some other scourge, like sugary drinks or fatty foods.  Raising taxes on these types of products disproportionately affect those with low-income who already have fewer dietary options.  I’m not calling cigarette taxes regressive, but its worth nothing that this sort of revenue stream is unsustainable unless it is applied elsewhere.  Something has to give, and the state has wasted precious years that could have been used for prevention and outreach. What does New Jersey get for its efforts?  State finances are a wreck, prevention programs are impotent, and smokers still roam the state at will.

While the state has misused and mismanaged its sin tax policies, it is adding terrible restrictions to what used to be a sensible youth-driving program.  Some background: last year, state lawmakers passed “Kyleigh’s Law”, named after a young lady who died as a passenger in a teenager friend’s car.  Aside from the hysterics and flaws of reacting to tragedies with laws named after young people (more on that another time), the law was poorly structured from the start.  It required that young drivers attach a red sticker to their license plate so that police could identify when a young driver was on the road.  The reaction from parents and teenagers was telling: vocal protests occurred before and after the law’s passage.  Two immediate concerns were that the law is a giant beacon for potential sexual predators, and doesn’t teach young drivers how to drive. Both of these claims are hard to quantify, but the potential consequences of the law are too hard to ignore.

Run for Cover!

On Wednesday, State Assemblyman Robert Schroeder (R) released the results of a survey he conducted on Kyleigh’s Law.  The kicker:

…But only 21 percent of young drivers said they always or often complied with the decal law. Sixty-three percent said they never do, and another 7 percent said they rarely use the decals, Schroeder said.

I cam sympathize with teenagers wanting to not follow the rules, but the results of this survey should be a wake-up call to NJ politicians.  The decal provision of Kyleigh’s law sparked outrage for good reason, and now it is utterly failing.

Crafting policy around single tragic events does nothing to prevent future tragedies.  It is easy for lawmakers to overlook unintended consequences of their legislation- but it is much harder to overlook the consequences when the majority of those affected by the policy disobey the law or protest against it.  It seems that if New Jersey legislators have any sense (doubtful), they would repeal the decal provision sooner than later.

I didn’t post these two news items out of yearning for my whimsical youth.  I think both show deeper and more troubling trends, and not just in New Jersey.  The paternalistic instinct to watch over citizens has a limit, and can easily misjudge public priorities.  Particularly when it comes to young drivers, the state crossed a fine line and implemented a terrible policy.  For those inclined to think that the government is always the best option, policies like Kyleigh’s Law should be a good example of why it isn’t.

The paternalistic urge to regulate cigarette smoking is just as much of a sham, and is also a facade that people continue to buy in to.  Cigarette taxes aren’t about prevention and everyone in New Jersey knows it.  If they were, the state’s prevention efforts wouldn’t be in such disarray.  Instead, prevention is being used a smokescreen to fund a corrupt and inefficient bureaucracy.  For those who want to make their own life choices, the double-standards in New Jersey only confirm what libertarian-types knew from the start: the government can very easily screw up a good thing.

I’d like to hope that laws like the decal provision will be repealed, particularly given widespread public opposition.  If the case of cigarette taxes have taught us anything, however, its that poor public policy is something that can continue for no good rhyme or reason.

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