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To Save Lives, Raise Funds and Cut the Deficit: Tax Tobacco

This letter to the editor of the New York Times by Jimmy Carter was published on Feb. 21, 1993.

To the Editor:

As our new president searches for ways to improve health care and reduce budget deficits, he should seriously consider a major increase in federal tobacco taxes. He could save hundreds of thousands of lives and simultaneously raise tens of billions of dollars for health care reform or deficit reduction.

I know the incalculable toll of suffering and human loss caused by tobacco use. My father, my mother, both sisters and my brother died of cancer. Every one of them smoked cigarettes. Every year nearly half a million Americans die from direct and passive smoking.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that direct use of tobacco kills more than 8,300 Americans each week. This is roughly double the total of all deaths caused by alcohol, car accidents, AIDS, suicide, homicide, fires, crack cocaine and heroin. In addition, the Environmental Protection Agency has classified environmental tobacco smoke a known human carcinogen that causes lung cancer and death in nonsmokers, and that is particularly dangerous for children and babies.

The single most effective way to reduce tobacco use and nicotine addiction, especially among children, is a substantial increase in the price of tobacco products. The country's leading health organizations, including the American Cancer Society, American Lung Association, American Heart Association and American Medical Association, are urging President Clinton and Congress to raise the cigarette excise tax $2 a pack.

Our children are the most important reason for a major tobacco tax increase. Ninety percent of all smokers begin smoking as teen-agers, who are more sensitive to higher prices than adults. We can deter millions of young people from ever starting to smoke, saving hundreds of thousands from addiction and premature death.

Health groups estimate that a $2-a-pack tax increase would reduce smoking rates enough to save nearly 2 million lives -- more than the total lives lost in all United States wars combined.

This proposal would raise more than $30 billion a year in new revenue, which could be put to good use paying for health care reform, childhood immunization efforts and other high priorities. In this way, tobacco could begin to pay its fair share of the tremendous costs it imposes on our society.

JIMMY CARTER, Chairman, The Carter Center Atlanta

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