Several years ago, a small college in northern California invited me to lecture, offering a surprisingly high fee. Once there and having made friends with my sponsors, I asked how they could afford it. The smiling answer was "the state lottery," which gave a cut of its proceeds to educational institutions.
California is one of 37 states with officially sponsored lotteries - 24 states have legalized casinos. In a recent year, Americans gambled away some $40 billion in legal gambling joints, whose operators eased their consciences by paying about $15 billion in federal, state and local taxes. Never mind that the lottery exploits addiction and represents a form of regressive taxation. A recent Washington Post study shows that the wealthiest counties in the capital area have the thinnest concentration of lottery agents. In one of Washington's poorest neighborhoods, outlets like convenience stores and check-cashing shops sell $2 million a year in government-sponsored betting slips.
Another so-called "sin tax," on alcoholic beverages, brought in about $7.6 billion. Tobacco is the great benefactor, paying $15 billion, or about 30 percent of tobacco's take in a recent year.
The cigarette controversy now confronts us with a paradox, which some might call hypocrisy. The Clinton administration, which wants to raise the cigarette tax by $1.10 a pack in order to discourage teenage smoking, also wants to use the expected half-trillion dollar proceeds for cancer research, education, and child care.
To the extent that it succeeds in its first purpose - reducing youthful smoking - it will fail in its other purpose, raising money. That's what you would call a profound conflict of interest. And when the president assures Kentucky tobacco farmers that he wants to reduce smoking but not destroy the cigarette industry, he is puffing from both sides of his mouth. A little reminiscent of smoking marijuana without inhaling.
The public-health community has never held much with taxing sin, which tends to make the treasury a partner of the purveyor. Nor is there any solid evidence that higher prices through taxes have any appreciable effect on reducing consumption, even among the young.
Taxes are no real answer to addiction, except for establishing another form of addiction - governments hooked on the proceeds of addiction.
Undoubtedly, seeking regulation of nicotine will be harder to achieve than raising taxes.
But it may make it easier for us to look at ourselves in the mirror.
* Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio.