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Follow the Money as Hochul Floats Tobacco Ban While Pushing Legal Marijuana

The New York Sun

May 12, 2023

Governor Hochul has floated the idea of banning all sales of tobacco products in New York State, even as she urges New Yorkers to purchase and partake of now-legal cannabis.

It’s not easy to see these as consistent views — both, after all, have been shown to be products hazardous to your health.  Yet a closer look reveals they are linked — in the still-stalled state budget. Appearances to the contrary, Ms. Hochul is willing to turn a blind eye to public health harm in exchange for continuing tax revenues. 

Even if it were to ban tobacco, New York State would continue to benefit financially from its sale, while steering cannabis purchases from illegal weed shops to state-licensed ones would provide a fat new tax revenue source. 

Banning tobacco sales would lead, to be sure, to a short-term drop in cigarette tax revenues.  The combined city-state tax on cigarettes — $5.85 — is the nation’s highest. It’s led to declining adult use. Yet even if no cigarettes were sold legally in New York the state will continue to receive a gusher of funds from the tobacco companies, thanks to the 1999 nationwide tobacco “settlement,” compensating states for health care costs linked to smoking.  

Since then, the states has received more than $16 billion from the Big Tobacco progressives vilify — and will receive some $362 million this year.  Such payments will continue, per the agreement, as long as tobacco is legally sold in America — which is likely to continue in New York. Ms. Hochul may score progressive points by proposing a ban — but the state cannot constitutionally cannot regulate interstate commerce of a legal product, as Big Tobacco will surely remind it in court. 

Even if a ban were somehow to pass, that would not mean an end to New York’s reliance on tobacco money. Unless Ms. Hochul is willing to turn down the tobacco settlement monies, she wants residents of other states to smoke, to support the tobacco cash cow which feeds the New York budget.  

It’s of a piece with her wanting other states to frack for natural gas and keep our lights on, while we keep a counterproductive ban in place. Of course, New Yorkers would be free to buy their smokes in other states or on Indian reservations.  

And we could expect the same sort of black market we now see with cannabis when it comes to cigarettes. Recall that Eric Garner tussled with cops on Staten Island who sought to arrest him for selling individual “loosie” cigarettes. With a ban, however, Ms. Hochul will be able to virtue signal while still relying on Big Tobacco.

What’s more, if Ms. Hochul somehow does steer pot purchases to licensed shops, she’ll have the best of both tax worlds — from tobacco and pot.

None of this makes any sense for those concerned about public health. According to the Albany Times-Union, of the $16 billion in tobacco settlement funds New York State received between 1999 and 2021, just $920 million went for “tobacco control,” including those legitimately frightening television ads featuring dying smokers. Instead, the funds have been used to fund the ever-growing overall state budget. 

Worse still, we have seen no similar public health warnings about pot, even as its newer, stronger variants are legally sold. Ms. Hochul is cheerleading marijuana use despite increasing evidence of its harmful side effects. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse “using marijuana causes impaired thinking and interferes with a person’s ability to learn and perform complicated tasks.” 

It should be serious cause for concern that, in 2019 — before legalization spread to New York State — an estimated 12 million drivers operated a vehicle under the influence of pot. And there’s no breathalyzer equivalent for police to use when they check for weed use.

Even the left-leaning press has begun to see the folly of portraying pot as benign or beneficial. A Washington Post health columnist, Dr. Lorena Wen, says “celebrating the recreational use of the drug is the exact opposite of what our country needs.” She urges a concerted public health campaign about its harm.

Proposing a ban on cigarette sales while cheerleading cannabis is an inconsistent and hypocritical pair of policies. Both are likely to remain legal — and the state should do what it can to discourage the use of both. Maybe it can use some of that tobacco settlement money.