Our system of government is based on our elected officials following through on their ideas for the betterment of the community. Whether they’re debating trade policy or social services, improving the lives of constituents should always be first priority. Recently, Congress has signaled a disregard for low-income Americans with the Tobacco Tax Equity Act, introduced by Sen. Dick Durbin (D., Ill.) and other Democrats, to double the federal tax on all tobacco products. If passed, this legislation would wreak havoc on our communities and make it difficult for the Biden administration to live up to its promises.
After all, the people of Philadelphia resoundingly elected Joe Biden based on his campaign promises. Perhaps the most famous among them was his pledge to not raise taxes on anyone earning less than $400,000 per year. Doubling the federal tax on tobacco products, which amounts to an average price almost $2.50 higher than the rest of our state, is effectively a regressive tax and violates that promise.
Our history is rife with examples of elected officials pursuing policy without due consideration of its effect on their constituents. There is often no malice in their actions, simply a haste unbefitting of our leaders.
In fact, even the most well-intentioned public policy has unforeseen consequences. In the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, over one-third of all smokers have household incomes under $25,000, per data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The proposed tax could force poor smokers onto the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, an initiative stretched thin enough already.
Any major tax hike on the price of tobacco products would force the least fortunate among us to shoulder a heavier burden than the well-off. It’s high time that our leaders support our community in more than their speeches and talking head segments. Legislation passed without consulting low-income Philadelphians often affects their lives in major and difficult ways. During this time of major social upheaval throughout the country, we should genuinely listen to the input of the working class.
Another potential consequence of the Tobacco Tax Equity Act of 2021 is the further deterioration of police-community relations. Raising the price of a substance to discourage its use often doesn’t shift demand at all. Instead, an underground economy simply fills the gap in supply. Pennsylvania already has experience with the issue of smuggling — to the tune of an estimated $177.9 million in lost tax collection in 2019. In a bid to reduce smoking, our leaders have opened the door to even more black market activity.
As a rule, we should avoid creating unnecessary interactions between members of our community and law enforcement. While this tax increase admittedly falls short of an outright ban on tobacco products, the effect is the same. To account for a network of illegal sales, our leaders are all but sure to give police undue leeway in on-the-ground enforcement, as they have dozens of times before.
Prohibitions against commonplace substances, whether through economic coercion or drummed-up legal consequences, almost always hurt the group they seek to aid. This is no different. Penalizing dependency is not how we discourage smoking, nor is it fair to the most financially vulnerable among us.
We’ve been down this road before, and it always leads to the same place: Eventually, our leaders are forced to admit that their actions were rushed in development and flawed in practice. I urge all of Philadelphia’s representatives in Washington to consider this proposal in the larger context of American history. After doing so, I’m sure they will reach the same conclusions that I have about the proposed tax hike and its potential to devastate our families and communities.
Bishop Benjamin D. Fisher is senior pastor at the Life Church in Philadelphia.
The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.