Smoke and Mirrors

Quitting smoking is hard. Just ask President Obama.

He’s acknowledged his struggle to kick the habit, and you have to figure he has all of the tools he needs at his disposal (along with the scrutiny of the media, the nation, as well as his wife and kids). So why does the new state budget actually make it harder for Wisconsin residents still trying to shake their deadly addiction to cigarettes?

Earlier this summer, Obama signed legislation that for the first time gives the federal government control over how tobacco products are made, marketed and sold.

With this historic development, Michael Fiore, director of the UW Center for Tobacco Research and Intervention, predicts tobacco use in the United States will come to an end within the next forty years. Fiore knows what he’s talking about, having dedicated much of his career to helping smokers quit and advising officials on how to solve this major public health problem.

But why wait that long when we can do something about it now?

Smoking has killed more than ten million Americans in the last twenty years. But for some reason, our lawmakers and governor saw fit to cut in half the funding that goes to successful smoking cessation programs in the most recent budget. Sure, they raised the cigarette tax by seventy-five cents per pack, but that won’t have the impact it could have had without the proper funding to help addicted smokers get cessation counseling and treatment.

These programs work and should be as easy to access as a pack of cigarettes because they save lives and millions of dollars in health care costs.

But our elected officials had a more pressing issue to solve this summer—how to fix a budget deficit while still trying to win re-election. Politicians—and usually the public—view increasing cigarette or other “sin” taxes as a more palatable way to generate revenue than hiking income, property or other taxes.

It’s not the first time lawmakers have made the wrong choice on how to use tobacco money. As Wisconsin’s economy has worsened, after the boom of the 1990s, lawmakers became more and more addicted to it as a solution to a series of shortfalls. We even kicked off the new millennium by selling off the state’s share of the national tobacco settlement to plug a budget hole.

Our leaders’ failure to once again see the big picture on this issue is another missed opportunity for Wisconsin.

Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids reports that states that have been most successful at reducing tobacco use have implemented a comprehensive approach that includes high tobacco taxes, strong smoke-free workplace laws and well-funded tobacco prevention and cessation programs.

We have a statewide smoking ban and our cigarette tax is now $2.52 per pack. But we need the third leg of that stool. It only makes sense—it’s just too bad our lawmakers don’t seem to have any when it comes to this life and death issue.

Colin Benedict is WISC-TV’s news director. Before that he was the station’s political reporter. He’s lived in the Madison area since 1995.
E-mail him at

Jenny Price is a Madison native who covered the state Capitol for the Associated Press and has written about Wisconsin politics for a decade.
E-mail her at


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