Right(ish) Answer, Wrong Arithmetic


Ten years ago last month, John McCain's bill to slap a $1.10-a-pack federal tax on cigarettes died on the Senate floor. McCain's position had been that the price hike would prevent kids from smoking, as he explained to Katie Couric at the time:

I have to rely on the opinion of every living surgeon general in America, every public health group in America, and anyone who's respected on the issue of kids smoking. And they said that this comprehensive way was the only way we could address the problem of 3,000 kids starting to smoke every day, 1,000 of them will die early, and that is the only way we can address the issue.

When the bill went down, thanks largely to Republican opposition, McCain blamed free-spending cigarette companies and legislators who cared more about tobacco money than The Children. As he recalled in his 2002 memoir:

I rose to speak on the Senate floor just before the bill was pulled. I was just angry, and I expressed it at length, suggesting near the end of my remarks that perhaps the health of children should be a greater concern to my party.

What does McCain say now about taxing cigarettes to prevent child smoking? Marc Ambinder was at a McCain cancer event (?) last week. Here's what he saw:

McCain now opposes sin taxes on cigarettes. He said he worries that Congress would put the additional money into a general revenue pool. "Does anyone here have confidence in Congress?" he asked the crowd. Moderator Paula Zahn was skeptical. Might McCain change his mind if researchers proved that raising the tobacco tax would help lower smoking rates?

"It would have to be proved. I don't think it's in the constitution of this Congress." He hastened to add, "By the way, I'm not for anybody's taxes." He later implied that raising the cigarette tax would lead to more smoking as a way of explaining his decision not to support a Democratic attempt to use a tax hike to pay for more children's health insurance.

For the record, I'm happy that John McCain no longer wants to apply a federal tax on cigarettes (though I'm less happy that he continues to want to regulate tobacco through the Food and Drug Administration). But I think this minor progression ? which he repeats on topic after topic, week after week ? illustrates how for McCain, positions and even facts are malleable; it's the high moral dudgeon that remains the same.

Michael Lynch profiled McCain for reason back in the senator's anti-Big Tobacco days. And the University of Michigan Tobacco Research Network has compiled a list of what it describes as Barack Obama's "extensive" record in controlling tobacco, including a 75-cents-a-pack Illinois state tax.