THE FATAL FLAW OF THE SIN TAX FIX By Jon Carroll Taxing cigarettes is fine with me; I don'

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THE FATAL FLAW OF THE SIN TAX FIX By Jon Carroll Taxing cigarettes is fine with me; I don't smoke. Also, I hate the marketing practices of cigarette companies, so anything that can be done to make them squirm is just jake in my book. But I do think the administration's reasoning, as expressed by Budget Director Leon Panetta, is just a little flawed. Well, a lot flawed. Panetta said that a huge tax on cigarettes would be a grand idea for two reasons. First, cigarette smoking adversely impacts the health of American citizens, so the merchants of death might as well pay for it up front. Second, high taxes on cigarettes would serve as a disincentive to smokers, meaning that fewer people would smoke and the nations health care bills would go down. It's number two that bothers me. The people who refrain from smoking because of the high cost of cigarettes are going to live longer. As they age, they are going to contract a wide variety of other diseases. Eventually one of the diseases will be fatal, although heroic efforts will be made to save the person anyway. In other words: Nonsmokers die too. In fact, nonsmokers die at precisely the same rate as smokers, ie: 100 percent. And since nonsmokers live longer, they will inevitably put a greater strain on the health care system. Someone who dies of Extreme Old Age at 97 is going to use up a lot more health care bucks than someone who keels over from a heart attack at 48. So if we really wanted to use tax policy to help control the rising cost of health care, we wouldn't tax cigarettes at all. We'd tax vegetables. You see what I'm saying. One of the great problems with our health care system is that everybody's living longer. People are gobbling up prescriptions, getting various limbs and sockets replaced, responding to advances in physical therapy, just living and living and living. Fiscally speaking, all this living is a bad idea. Fiscally speaking we need more death. I'm not suggesting that be our nation's policy; I'm only exploring the reality of the matter. We should tax vegetables, leotards, walking shoes, meditation tapes, X-ray equipment. Hell, we should tax medicine. Of course, that would mean that rich people would get better health care, but that's already true. And it will never change. Whatever safety nets are in place, whatever blessings managed competition brings to average Americans, the rich will always get the best doctors. Let's look at it another way. If you ask people how they want to die, almost inevitably they say that they want to die unexpectedly and painlessly in their sleep. The vote is more or less unanimous; it would be impossible to find an issue on which Americans agree more. And yet how much money is being spent trying to make sure that every American gets to die unexpectedly and painlessly in their sleep? None. Death is hard to think about; I acknowledge that. But death is the bottom line of health care. We all know we want a lot more damn fine health care, but what do we want it for? To live longer, or to live better? Longer is not better; we know that. On the other hand, we have only one life, and we don't want the government deciding when our longer does not equal our better. And so we pretend that nonsmokers don't die; we pretend that human mortality is a policy matter; we pretend that suffering and pain were created by the Republicans. Nope. God did it. Isn't that irritating? Jon Carroll wrote this commentary for the SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE.

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