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Blue Smoke and Mirrors: Tobacco Bond Meltdown Heralds Worse

When it comes to smoking in America, there is some good news and some bad news. The good news is that America seems to be making progress in the war on smoking. While smoking remains (appropriately) legal across the country, the number of smokers is steadily falling due to the high price of cigarettes and the effectiveness of state policies to discourage it. The bad news? Many states, including cash-strapped California, issued large bonds backed by payments from tobacco companies. Increasingly, falling sales are reducing those revenues, the NYT reports. Now some of these bonds are on the verge of default.

States did two contradictory things: betting on large streams of tobacco money coming in well into the future while simultaneously trying to discourage smoking in every way possible. Now they find themselves in a lose-lose situation where the success of one policy leads to the failure of the other, and state businesses and investors are now going to be left holding the bag.

At one level this is just another story of human stupidity. People are often not very smart. But there is something else at work. Unfortunately, bad decisions like this are becoming more common as the blue model declines. Myopic politicians hungry for revenue are prone to making ill-considered investment decisions, while powerful constituencies addicted to government money are only too happy to egg them on.

The tobacco mess is a classic of blue dysfunction at work: with one hand the states are busy throttling the cow which their other hand is trying to milk.  Currently, affected states are threatening to sue tobacco companies for $8 billion in withheld payments which the tobacco companies claim they are unable to pay. Cue the desperate fiddling as state governments work frantically to get themselves and their investors out of this mess.

The tobacco industry is a peculiarly destructive business and, having lost two dear relatives to smoking related disease, I am not unhappy to watch smoking, and the companies which profit from it, move into decline. That the ashtray is becoming as rare as the spittoon strikes me as a good thing.

But unfortunately tobacco isn’t the only cow the blue model is trying to kill and milk at the same time. Blue model governance involves relentlessly escalating costs, proliferating environmental and other forms of regulation, and an inexorably increasing tax burden to cover the costs.

That is basically the attitude of many cities and states toward small business in particular: they regulate it to death even as they scramble to figure out how to wring more taxes out of an increasingly sickly beast.

Hunting your prey to extinction is not a wise move; too often, though, that is where the logic of blue model governance leads.


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  • Corlyss

    “with one hand the states are busy throttling the cow which their other hand is trying to milk.”

    Wonderful image, WRM. It made my day.

  • Soul

    Surprisingly, I remember reading a paper saying that despite the drop in the numbers of smokers the rate that people are having heart attacks remains about the same. The number of people dying from cardiacs has decreased though due to better technology. It isn’t something I would promote, but though it interesting.

    “Cancer, heart disease, and smoking”

  • Kris

    “Now they find themselves in a lose-lose situation where the success of one policy leads to the failure of the other”

    “Lose-lose”??? Poor intern!

  • newrouter

    radon causes lung cancer so says the epa. using “public health” to guide gov’t action is a loser.

  • Vinny B.

    The real issue is how the Republicans from the Southnhave been in Big Tobacco’s pocket for over 100-plus years. If it weren’t for the criminal Republican Party making sure at one time every 12 year old smoked, we wouldn’t be in the mess we are in. Instead of blaming moderate states, you should be blaming the outrageously scummy Republicans from North Carolina and Virginia.

  • JorgXMcKie

    My grandfather told a similar story. It seems that he had a milk cow that cost more to feed than the milk was worth. So he decided to break the cow of eating. He fed it a little less each day, and just when he had it nearly cured of eating, it just up and died.

  • M. Simon


    You might want to look up “Schizophrenia Tobacco” to get educated. It is really surprising the amount of ignorance out there.

    Here is a link to start you off:

    So you want to either up the taxes on schizophrenics or deny them the right to self medication? Or what?

  • Richard

    I could never understand what these people were thinking unless they weren’t thinking very hard. We can raise taxes, get the money, and discourage smoking all at the same time? Duh. Like a cat chasing its tail.

  • marbee

    It serves the states right for meddling where they don’t belong in the first place! The suits in the states are as stupid as the suits in Washington. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen in any state’s Constitution or the U.S. Constitution that the job of government is to regulate health. Especially when all it does is pad the pockets of big pharma who lobby for laws that drive the need for their own brand of nicotine!

  • Rich K

    Well, I guess the states can ask the Congress to allocate and assign the subsidies to the tobacco growers as payment on those delinquent payments.God I love it when the leviathan steps in its own dung.

  • Lorenz Gude

    As a recovering dairy farmer that image of trying to throttle a cow while milking it, induced some interesting mental gymnastics. Tentative conclusion – it is a great metaphor, but physically impossible. Actually I think such self destructive behavior is pretty common in our species. Look at how Wall Street managed to turn ‘safe as houses’ into its opposite with metaphors in the form of fraudulent bonds. And how the relatively virtuous and uncorrupt Chinese (hat tip Tom Friedman) are turning a virtuous one child policy into a demographic disaster by aborting female fetuses.

  • Micha Elyi

    And critics of the novel Atlas Shrugged claimed Ayn Rand’s portrayal of the greedy stupidity of politicians and bureaucrats was unrealistic.

  • John Bragg

    Would legalization of marijuana do anything to help the tobacco companies? I’m a city boy who can’t keep my lawn from being taken over by crabgrass and clover, but would the tobacco companies have any transferable skills in growing and distributing legal marijuana cigarettes?

    This is obviously not a solution to the larger blue social model problem, but a patch on this particular crack in the dam.

  • Nelson

    Consider the case of the working smoker that contributes to cigarette taxes, Social Security, and Medicare.

    The reduced life expectancy of smokers suggests they routinely pass prior to collecting years and years worth of social security payments. Americans tend to experience high end-of-life medical costs regardless of tobacco use. However, smokers have a greater chance of utilizing private insurance for medical issues rather than medicare as those issues often take place prior to age 65.

    I too am pleased to see a reduction in tobacco use. But that reduction seems a significant financial negative for the public treasury–well beyond tobacco tax receipts.

  • Brett

    “I am not unhappy to watch smoking, and the companies which profit from it, move into decline. That the ashtray is becoming as rare as the spittoon strikes me as a good thing.”

    The attendant tyranny has always struck me as a bad thing indeed. Your good thing hasn’t been worth it.

  • DirtyJobsGuy

    The other thing about the tobacco settlement bonds is that except for Minnesota, all the Attorneys General hooked up with outside trial lawyers on the case. No state legislatures authorized these actions to my knowledge to maintain the flow of cash to the “John Edwards” clan.

    Another Blue case of creating a rent stream to outsiders who then kicked back political contributions.

  • teapartydoc

    CAFE standards are doing the same thing. Often the best policy is no policy. Then you don’t have to deal with the consequences of contradictions.

  • Skandia Recluse

    I thought way back when this whole extortion thing started the tobacco industry should have left the country taking their business offshore. Like all established bureaucracies the inclination is to somehow make a deal. People don’t want to pack up and move, neither do businesses, and conditions offshore might well have been worse.

    It is inescapable that the tobacco industry faces an existential threat; they’ll go down incrementally or all at once, but they’re being taken down by gangster thugs disguised as ‘do gooders’. What gives it all away is the demand to legalize pot while criminalizing tobacco.

  • Sam L.

    The entirely foreseeable result strikes…unexpectedly!

  • Freddie Sykes

    It might have helped if the read some Bible stories. During the fat revenue years they borrowed instead of savings. Now we are in the lean years and, rather than being able to draw upon that which they set aside, they have to make sue with less while paying back past loans.

    Their one out is to cut essential services so that they can fund their diversity programs and retiree benefits.

  • PTL

    I thought that the idea of illegal drug dealers
    is to increase consumption. More users, more money. This shows how bad the politicians of the Blue states are at economics and business principles. And dumb.

  • PTL

    A new mandate under ObamaCare should be to encourage smoking. Since smokers die earlier,
    and “Joseph Mengele” panels under the plan
    are going to decrease the burden on health
    care costs. An added plus, the Social Security “fund” will not have to pay out benefits except
    for funeral costs.

  • wjr

    Vinny B.: You should educate yourself before sticking your foot in your mouth. Those “Republican” politicians protecting the tobacco business were, largely, Democrats. Indeed, the south was a Democratic stronghold from the Civil War until the late ’80’s, early ’90’s — when the anti-smoking legal rip off reached fruition.

    The “solid south” gave us such disasters as FDR, LBJ and Jimmie the Fool.

  • Insufficiently Sensitive

    Christine Gregoire, the Washington AG who was prominent in the exploitive looting of companies for selling a perfectly legal product, is right in the vanguard of the statist Governors who feels entitled to ever more income from ever less prosperous companies and taxpayers. She has yet to explain this predictable milk-em with one hand, throttle ’em with the other, result of her cynical lawsuit. About time she was held accountable.

  • M. Simon

    Some one mentioned up thread the demand to legalize pot and outlaw tobacco.

    Here is a very nice bit on the subject. The good stuff on tobacco vs pot is near the end:

  • Kris

    Freddie@20: “It might have helped if the read some Bible stories. During the fat revenue years they borrowed instead of savings. Now we are in the lean years and, rather than being able to draw upon that which they set aside, they have to make sue with less while paying back past loans.”

    Heck, if only they would read Keynes, whose name they take in vain.

    wjr@23: I see you’ve met one of our local colorful characters.

  • Mike

    My father died of smoking-induced cancer. I have no great love for tobacco companies but neither do I have any hatred for them. My father made a choice. I too made a choice: to not smoke. It was real easy. And I did not need an army of well-meaning bureaucrats to do it. Freedom works, pass it on.

  • Another Anon

    First thing that popped in my mind: Parasite. Attaching to a host, leeching from it to keep its own bloated, useless self alive. Then eventually killing its host, and either dying or somehow making its way to another host to repeat the cycle.

  • Michael J. McFadden

    Walter, you wrote, “powerful constituencies addicted to government money…”

    Are you talking about the smoke-banning people here? If you consult the AMA Annual Tobacco Control Reports from the early 2000s you’ll find that the Antismokers were getting in excess of 800 million dollars a YEAR just from the MSA tax on smokers to push their policies.

    Skandia’s characterization is correct: Government has pretty much acted in the role of gangland extortion when it comes to what its done regarding smokers over the past 10 years or so. They try to justify it by pointing at the cost of smoking-related illnesses but pretty much all the legitimate economic studies by actual economists have shown that smokers were already more than paying their own way even before those taxes.

    The Master Settlement Agreement basically consisted of two wolves (The combined state governments and the tobacco companies) and a sheep (smokers) voting on what was for dinner. Even sadder … the sheep weren’t even allowed a voice at the table at the time.

    Michael J. McFadden,
    Author of “Dissecting Antismokers’ Brains”

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