Some members of Congress regard the $1.10-per-pack boost in the tax on cigarettes proposed by the bill before the Senate as drastic. It's not. It won't even get the after-inflation tax level back up to where it was a few decades ago when smoking was much more widely accepted in the United States and its consequences were less known.
Congress shouldn't balk at discouraging the destructive smoking habit by a major increase in tobacco product prices. Not all users will be deterred. Many will.
The Clinton administration asked for a $1.50-a-pack hike. That, according to economic studies, could prompt a 50 percent reduction in smokers 17 and younger. Young smokers would drop from 16.6 million to 8.3 million. Overall, tobacco use would drop 30 percent, as youths didn't start and adults cut back or quit.
A $1.10 tax hike would accomplish somewhat less shrinkage.
Today, a typical heavy smoker gives up only about 0.4 percent of his or her income to federal cigarette taxes. The figure was 2 percent in 1951.
There is concern that if the bill introduced by Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona is made too tough, it will lose the support of a centrist coalition of lawmakers. The bill is already a reasonable compromise. An amendment during the debate last month stripped away legal protection for tobacco companies. Another amendment, proposed by Sen. Richard Durbin (D) of Illinois, would raise the cap on fines companies would pay the government if youth smoking does not decline sufficiently to meet targets in the bill.
Several bill provisions that are specifically aimed at reducing smoking by youths make sense. The legislation, for instance, limits the use of vending machines to adult-only facilities. It authorizes various public education programs to discourage smoking. It requires more explicit warning labels on packages. It bans the use of animal characters or cartoons in industry advertising.
Since 9 out of 10 smokers start as teens, measures to end targeting of youths would, over time, shrink the number of adult smokers.
Sympathetic help is due the 50 million American smokers. That's poignantly clear when we see them puffing in exile in the cold or heat outside buildings, caught up in a habit many want to shake. Confronted with that evidence, most Americans don't want to see teenagers, swayed by the bravado or curiosity of youth, take up smoking. Congress should make cigarettes more expensive. No excuses.