San Francisco “Clean-Up” Tax

It seems there is nary an issue Californians will not legislate. And, as it turns out, there are other problems to be faced apart from the abysmal state of the economy. Cigarette butts have been dirtying the streets of San Francisco for years and, smokers be warned, Mayor Gavin Newsom has finally decided to put his foot down. To combat the problem, he has proposed a tax that he believes will work to ameliorate two cigarette related issues. The first is the mess. The tax, which current estimates place at 33 cents per box, would fund the city’s effort to clean-up cigarette butts from streets and public places. San Francisco spends around $44 million to clean the city’s litter every year.  Newsom says that officials have found cigarette butts comprise roughly a fourth of that litter. The money raised from the tax, which will be about $11 million per year, would therefore be used exclusively for addressing the product from which it is derived. And, as San Francisco, like the rest of California, is running a deficit, money for city beautification is not likely to been seen from any other place in the budget (alright – so economics is a factor, as well).

The second issue is an old motif, recited at every stage of a cigarette tax’s journey. It is in the interest of maintaining the health of Americans (and, of course, the health of their health insurance) that cigarettes are made costly, and thereby limited in their appeal. The logic runs that if the government nudges up the price of each carton, Americans will stem their own habits and regulation will occur naturally according to laws of supply and demand. This would by no means be a new application of government. Since 1861, when Congress was slack for cash to fund their effort in the Civil War, politicians have been permitting the taxation of cigarettes and alcohol for reasons apart from the raising of government monies. We can thank President Lincoln for heralding the birth of “sin tax”: that is to say, taxation as behavior control. But I digress.

Mayor Newsom will not see this tax through unopposed. Criticism has already developed in full color and, with typical obtusion, ranges from the whiney, to inane, to both. Predictably, the loudest detraction comes from the mouths of smokers who do not litter. How is it fair that they be made to pay to clean a mess they did not create? This is a deserving question. The taxation of consumer goods for the purposes of compensating the cost of the trash created by their waste seems to make available the possibility that this will not end with cigarettes.  For example, I have seen some sidewalks where chewing gum has almost completely made invisible the cement beneath it. This not being uncommon; might the government next place a clean-up tax on chewing gum? Violet Beauregarde may put up a fuss, but as to whether many Americans will care is hard to predict. They may not. Though they should note that a “clean-up” tax is not a “sin tax,” and for obvious reasons it could have a much broader reach.

For now, however, a cigarette “clean-up” tax is worth supporting. To nay sayers that think that it unfairly punishes them for the inconsiderate (and also illegal) actions of others, I offer the analogy of insurance. As I am recently learning, driver’s insurance rates are affected by multiple considerations. I am male; therefore my insurance rate is pricier than that of a female, all else being equal. Males typically drive faster (i.e. more accidents) than females, but I drive like a grandmother on valium. Is it fair that I pay extra because of the recklessness attributed to my sex? – Ultimately, yes. The insurance business functions because males compensate for the expense they – as group – cause. Insurance companies cannot know the average speed of every individual they insure, so they must make generalizations. Mayor Newsom is following this approach. If smokers want to remain living in a beautiful, clean San Francisco they should stop littering. But barring that, they should be prepared to pay for the mess created by their less considerate fellows.

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