By Randolph Brandt
Cigarette smoking is estimated to cost upwards of $72 billion dollars a year in added health care costs nationally, so it seems appropriate that the state of Wisconsin will now try to recover some of that cost by boosting state taxes to $2.52 a pack with the new state budget.
Cigarette smoking, though addictive, is second only to the cost of automobile accidents in terms of health costs associated with voluntary behavior.
Auto accidents cost upwards of $165 billion in additional health care costs per year, somewhat more than twice the cost of cigarette smoking.
Now, it’s easy to see that driving, whether by car or truck, really is essential to the national economy. Most of our food and other necessities of life move by truck these days, and despite the generous government subsides for mass transit, practically everybody still relies on their automobile to get to work.
But a significant portion of our driving is merely for pleasure, and that simple pleasure adds billions to our health care bill each year.
Thus, perhaps it would be appropriate to consider a new tax of $2.52 per fill-up for all personal cars in the two weeks surrounding the major travel holidays of Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, Labor Day and Christmas.
Certainly it would help cover the otherwise avoidable health-care costs of deaths and injuries sustained on or about those peak pleasure-driving periods. If nothing else, the additional tax money could go toward the cost of supporting blood banks, which routinely canvass the populace around these peak pleasure-driving times to cover the shortfall of desperately needed blood and plasma for accident victims injured during holiday travel.
There’s probably additional tax revenue justly available to offset what could be the third-highest example of readily avoidable health-care costs – the estimated $50 billion a year spent on sports injuries and deaths.
The long-term, costly effects of these injuries are particularly pernicious in that they tend to affect the youngest, most vulnerable members of our society – children who are enticed by popular role models and ubiquitous, unregulated advertising to risk a lifetime’s well-being for the short-term high of participating in team sports.
There’s no need for a Joe Camel to entice otherwise unsuspecting teens into a lifetime of suffering from such avoidable sports injuries as patellar tendonitis, Achilles tendonitis, jammed and broken fingers, meniscus tears, anterior cruciate ligament injury, even spontaneous heart failure and death.
We celebrate these activities, even spend taxpayers’ money to support them in our schools.
Yet we make no provision for paying for the long-term effects of these activities, such as painful, chronic arthritis, costly joint replacements and other lifetime disabilities that are the readily anticipated results.
We say, as the proverbial coach responds, "Just walk it off."
Not only do we encourage our young people to engage in these dangerous, though admittedly pleasurable activities at an early age, but our society also celebrates older athletes who continue to abuse their bodies well into middle age, when we all really should know better.
Doesn’t every intelligent person over 40 cringe a little deep down when they think of Brett Favre?
Nevertheless, this is Wisconsin, so forget the millions of dollars spent each year on football injuries.
Our governor is a great hoopster, so let’s consider, just for a moment, only basketball.
Basketball alone accounts for a significant share of sports injuries, an estimated $23 billion per year, and strikes particularly hard among young women, who are hurt playing the sport at a considerably higher percentage, on average, than men.
Still, only about 10 percent of the population plays basketball in any given year, less than half the percentage of, say, smokers, who represent roughly 25 percent in our society.
Now, it’s pretty easy to tax a minority, especially when they’re way out of proportion to the rest of the populace.
So, perhaps our governor would wish to make a statement here, a real demonstration of his commitment to public health and safety, by taxing something nearer and dearer to his own heart – basketball.
Adding a $2.52 surcharge to every basketball sold in Wisconsin would go a long way toward convincing critics that he’s really serious about using the power of the state to meld personal behavior to a more healthful, happy and cost-effective future for us all.
(Randolph Brandt is a retired newspaper editor [and pack-a-day smoker] who lives in Racine, Wis.)