June 30, 2009

Commentary: Taxing our way to better health

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.)


  1. Yes, I cringe when I think of "Brett Farve," because he spells his name "Favre."

    As for Joe Camel, he hasn't been shilling ciggies for more than a decade, old man.

    But more to the point: Your argument in favor of taxing this or that to pay for medical treatment is fault, because EVERYTHING leads to medical needs. We are creatures that all eventually die, Old Man; I've forgotten the old statistic but it was something like this: 85% of your entire lifetime's medical costs are incurred in the final two months of your life.

    No, really.

    So let's levy another $2.52 tax on everyone who dies! That'll prove we're serious about living.

  2. Al,

    Thanks for the speller. And, yes, indeed, everything's bad for you, so maybe we shouldn't try the slippery slope of taxing our way to better health.

  3. ... and another idea today from Kansas:

    "People who are overweight or critically injured will soon pay more for an ambulance ride in Shawnee County.

    AMR's Ken Keller told Shawnee County Commissioners Monday those patients take more manpower and equipment. Commissioners approved raising rates for critical care patients and patients who weigh more than 350-pounds from $629 to $1172.

    The increase takes effect July 1. However, Medicare and Medicaid patients will not be charged the higher rate."

  4. Then by that same logic why not legalize drugs and just tax the heck out of them. Why should drug dealers and cartels make all the money?

  5. Anon 2:21 writes, "Why should drug dealers... make all the money?"

    You should read this article by the Freakonomics guys; it explains why most drug dealers live with their mothers: they can't afford to live anywhere else!

  6. Freakonomics is a very interesting book. I think Obama should read it :)

  7. Downtown Denizen6/30/2009 11:32 PM

    Doyle wouldn't have to add any additional taxes to anything involving healthcare if he'd sign an executive order to quit giving totally free healthcare to illegal aliens. I dont' recall what the state and national figures actually are concerning that, but I do remeber that they were staggering!

  8. Most drug dealers do not live with their mothers. They can pay cash for anything they want. Just go to any western union and they are buying money orders up to the limits with cash. Are we talking high school pot peddlers?

    I have to disagree. I am talking about major do nothing else drug dealers, no mommies around. Besides have you ever thought mommy is living with off the drug money as well?

  9. I agree, why hasn't Dickert been vocal on addressing this problem? It was a campaign issue for him.
    Maybe it's because the police won't do anything about the drug problem.
    In one particular case, I called the police while walk-up drug deals were being conducted out of the front window of an apartment building, one of the neighbors even video taped it, and the police never came and weren't interested in viewing the video.
    On several other occasions the police have been called about people smoking crack and creating a public disturbance. When the cops came, they didn't even search the perpetrators, nor arrest them. They told them to leave and not come back or they "might" get arrested. "To Protect and Severs" is not a motto of in this town, it's a joke.

  10. Hey, let's just tax air while we're at it! And that's BS that Medicare/Medicaid recipients don't have to pay more for the ambulance if they are overweight or critically injured. Many studies have shown that many lower-income people tend to be fatter because they can only afford junk food all the time. Also, why should a critically injured welfare recipient get a discount compared to those of us who actually have insurance? Isn't this additional cost-spreading thing the type of practice we are trying to stop? Apparently it really does pay to sit on welfare nowadays!

  11. Kevin Hassett, Californias Nightmare in Bloomberg.com, very good reading for those who care about this country.