In voting to double the current federal excise tax on cigarettes from 8 cents a pack to 16 cents, the Senate Finance Committee was merely facing economic realities. Granted, the measure would only bring in about $1.2 billion next year out of the $21 billion in new revenues proposed in the finance measure. But given the fact that the cigarette tax has not been raised in 30 years it seems reasonable that smokers contribute their fair share of the income needed to offset deficits.
Critics of such an increase are correct in arguing that raising a consumption tax - such as on cigarettes - is regressive. The answer, however, is obvious, as noted by some health groups. It lies in quitting smoking, as millions of Americans have done in recent years. In the sense that the doubling of the excise tax may prompt some persons to cease their dependence on a product that has been labeled as a health threat by the US government itself, that can only work to the long-term public benefit.
Now that lawmakers have taken a courageous step in seeking additional taxes on cigarettes, the question arises whether alcohol taxes, too, should be raised. Currently, total federal, state, and local taxes on hard liquor make up a far greater percentage of the total cost of the product than is true with cigarettes (48 percent for distilled spirits, compared to 30 percent for cigarettes). In the case of beer and wine the percentage is less than with hard liquor. But since alcohol-related problems are a major financial drain on the economy, lawmakers might give earnest heed to the argument of Joseph Califano, former secretary of health, education, and welfare, that ''the time has come for alcohol to bear its fair share of the tax burden.''