De recente poging van de Amerikaanse federale overheid om de tabaksindustrie wegens gezondheidsschade miljarden af te persen is, net als de eerdere Master Settlement Agreement, een ordinaire poging om extra belastinggeld te innen zonder zelf de accijnsen te hoeven verhogen.
Dat is de mening van hoofdredacteur Steve Forbes van het vooraanstaande maandblad Forbes. Volgens hem doet het denken aan belastingheffing in de middeleeuwen toen het recht op belastingheffing bij opbod werd verkocht.
This Bad Bargain Must Go Up in Smoke
Recently a federal appeals court finally brought some sanity to the issue of the U.S. government’s being able to sue tobacco companies for allegedly burying the truth about cigarettes being harmful. Forgotten in all of this, of course, is the fact that cigarette packs have carried health-warning labels on them for 40 years. The judges ruled that the federal government cannot force the tobacco companies to hand over $280 billion of profits they earned while allegedly misleading us about their products’ impact on people’s health. The suit was born of Washington’s envy over the $206 bil-lion settlement 46 states had wrung out of the big tobacco companies several years ago. Uncle Sam wanted some tobacco loot, too.
While the courts are at it, they should take a similar knife to the original settlement in the case of the states versus the tobacco companies. It is unconstitutional; it makes a travesty of the government’s needing to win legislative approval before being able to exact a tax.
That settlement is one of the most monopolistic, anti-property-rights, anticompetitive acts of modern times. Most state legislatures–not to mention the U.S. Congress–were not willing to raise cigarette taxes substantially and directly. But they wanted big money from the tobacco industry, so they cooked up an extraconstitutional scheme to get it. To settle various state lawsuits, the big tobacco companies agreed to cough up $206 billion over 25 years. To get the dough, the tobacco companies raised cigarette prices substantially. Thus, the taxes that legislators were afraid to levy directly were exacted in the form of more expensive smokes. In return, the states, in effect, were protecting the big tobacco companies from competition.
It’s no surprise that the major tobacco companies, thus protected, raised prices not only to service the settlement but also to fatten their bottom lines. The deal prevented would-be cutthroat competitors from stealing market share by selling cheap cigarettes.
Now this cozy arrangement may come unstuck. A New York State court decision in early 2004 allowed a plaintiff to pursue an antitrust lawsuit against the settlement (see FORBES GLOBAL, Feb. 28). The original settlement inadvertently contained a loophole; it allowed cigarette discounters to get refunds of the special fee per pack of cigarettes that goes toward financing the settlement from states in which they don’t sell their wares. States have been passing laws to close this loophole, but in October a federal court said no can do. After all, why should a company that didn’t even exist at the time of the settlement be forced to pony up money for bad behavior in which it had played no part?
The whole deal is like tax collecting in olden times. Governments would put the job of collecting taxes up for bid. Whoever won the contract could collect whatever they could from the peasants, as long as the so-called tax farmers remitted a certain share of it to the crown. That tobacco settlement smacks of tax farming: Companies collect the money and remit it to the states.