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Commentary: Wages of sin are death, or taxes

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 25, 2009 - tIt would appear that the federal government is in the midst of a growth spurt. Like the awkward teenager who suddenly finds himself six inches taller than he was last year, it is going through a clumsy stage while attempting to adjust to its new size. Just as our fictional teen will learn to adapt, you can rest assured that your Uncle Sugar will soon get comfortable with his expanded dimensions.

As the government extends its reach into virtually every facet of human existence, it inevitably gets about the business of selecting winners and losers. A tin of the small cigars I smoke, for instance, formerly cost $7.79. After Mr. Obama signed a new sin tax on tobacco into law, that price increased overnight to $11.99. And this from the man who promised on the campaign trail that he would not raise my taxes.

The revenue raised by the new tax is supposed to help fund health care for uninsured children. That's a worthy effort but why should its cost be borne by cigar smokers but not by, say, chewing gum enthusiasts? Isn't protecting the young a collective obligation?

The answer, of course, is that tobacco is bad for you and it is thus permissible to rob the people who use it. Forget that we're talking about a legal product that was already taxed robustly before the increase. Forget also the inconvenient fact that the most patriotic thing you can do for the Social Security Administration is to die before you're old enough to collect benefits, as smokers often do. The government has decided to wage war on tobacco users. If you smoke, you're going to pay Washington for the privilege.

The government that levied the additional tobacco tax is the same one that runs public service announcements advising that nicotine is addictive. Question: if I'm addicted to a legal product that is harming my health, isn't that a form of disability? Shouldn't I be protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act?

After all, I'm the victim here. Instead of treating me like a moral leper and punishing me for being sick, the government by its own rules should be trying to accommodate my habit. What say we lift the ridiculously antiquated trade embargo on Cuba and start sending me monthly boxes of Cohibas on the taxpayers' dime? That's socialism I could live with -- at least, until it killed me ...

If the federal invasion of privacy were limited to tobacco use, it wouldn't be worth arguing about because smoking is a documented health risk. Besides, a lot of the people who smoke feel guilty for doing so and thus suffer their abuse in silence. The hapless nicotine addict, however, is but the tip of the iceberg. Next up, is a tax on soda pop.

It has now been determined that obesity is as big a health threat as smoking. The high concentration of refined sugar in most popular soft drinks is thought to be a contributing factor to the national corpulence epidemic. Predictably, the solution comes in the form of a new tax -- in this case, a proposed 5-cent a bottle levy on soda.

Of course, there are other potential sources of excess calories. Cheese burgers, French (aka "Freedom") fries and ice cream sundaes can all expand the waistline. Indeed, there is now talk of a fast food tax to help us all slim down. Pay up, Porker, at least your wallet's getting thinner.

And if we're going to put surcharges on tobacco, soda and fast food, can higher levies on alcohol be far behind? Considering the mischief of which they're capable, drinkers are a perennially popular target of intrusive government. Besides, excessive drinking is bad for your health and could drive up insurance costs.

For that matter, numerous studies indicate that a sedentary life style can give rise to a variety of health problems that could have been avoided through regular exercise. Perhaps the government should require couch potatoes to exercise strenuously for an hour a day or pay a sloth tax. The police can't be everywhere, so enforcing this one could prove difficult. Maybe citizens should be scheduled to report to government gyms for their daily workouts so that they can be properly monitored by the authorities.

I'm old enough to remember when we used to take pride in being "the land of the free." We boasted about our inalienable rights and the broad range of our personal prerogatives. If an outsider questioned our behavior, the common response was, "There's no law against" -- which translated loosely to "Mind your own business."

Presently, the reasonable goal of making health care accessible to all Americans is being perverted into a national power grab in which bureaucrats would tell us how to conduct our private affairs for the common good.

Before you buy too heavily into the "government knows best" school of citizenship, it's probably worth remembering that this is the same outfit that after nearly eight years of searching, still can't seem to locate a 6'4" Saudi Arabian dialysis patient with a $25 million bounty on his head.

M.W. Guzy is a retired St. Louis cop who currently works for the city Sheriff's Department. His column appears weekly in the Beacon.