Things hit a snag late Monday afternoon when a proposed cigarette tax to pay for Philly schools was sent from the Pennsylvania state Senate back to the House, delaying it—and the potential of millions of dollars in revenue—indefinitely.

It’s part of an ongoing story that’s about as infuriating as any to come out of Harrisburg during the Corbett years. And one that, if it ever concludes, will only begin solving our problems.

After more than a year of debate, a $2-per-pack tax on cigarettes (in Philly only) passed the House this spring, twice passed the Senate, and has received verbal support from Gov. Tom Corbett. State support is needed for local governments to raise such taxes.

Things seemed all swell until Monday, when the GOP caucus decided to amend the bill, again, to put a five-year sunset on the tax. That idea passed with the help of five Philly-area lawmakers which means it now goes back to the House for final approval before it can make it to Corbett’s desk.

Problem: The House is off for summer break. They could come back, but they also could just not.

Mayor Nutter has said not implementing the tax could cost Philly schools 1,300 jobs, including teachers, nurses and counselors, which, as ridiculous as it still sounds, are in the hands of the state Republican Party.

Delaying the tax’s implementation beyond the Sept. 1 estimated start date will cost schools about $1.6 million per week, Nutter told the Daily News’ John Baer (who, in turn, referred to the state Legislature as “stooges” this morning). Not implementing it at all would put the opening of Philly’s schools for the 2014-2015 year at risk. The tax, it would seem, is an absolute must.

But here’s the thing. A smoking tax will not save our schools. Not by a long shot.

To understand why, we only need to look at the Philadelphia Health Department’s own numbers and motivations.

According to a 2014 Community Health Assessment study, Philadelphia has one of the highest rates of adult smoking and obesity in the U.S. That’s bad. But the past 10 years have seen a 15 percent reduction in adult smoking—for which the government claims, through educational and advertorial efforts, it’s responsible.

Today, just 23.3 percent of Philadelphia adults smoke, which is actually the smallest percentage since smoking has been tallied. The declining rate is a nationwide trend which has seen massive victories over the last decade, the most visual of which are indoor (and some outdoor) smoking bans.

To put those numbers into some perspective for the sake of the tax, 23.3 percent of butt-sucking Philadelphians comes out to about 281,548 total smokers, if you’re to use the 2013 Philadelphia county census estimate (1,553,165), and the percentage of adults over 18 (77.8).

Rough estimates say the average U.S. smoker smokes 13 to 16 cigarettes per day—less than a pack, which holds 20 cigarettes. Which means the average smoker is buying between four and six packs per week.

For the sake of argument, let’s say Philadelphia’s smokers buy five packs per week. That means, if the bill passed, each of Philly’s 281,548 smokers would be shelling out an extra $520 per year to get their fix.

Total new yearly tax revenue: $146,404,960.

Problem solved? Nope. And not just because Dr. William Hite has noted it would take $216 million to continue the district’s already-insufficient, broken funding levels. Or that the smoke revenue would officially end after 2018.

Rather, it’s because when taxes are put on cigarettes, they do their job really well. Before a debate began on using cigarette (or soda) tax funds for schools, big cities proposed such taxes because, they said, it was good for us. Tax vices, the saying goes, and there will be less vice.

When a $2-per-pack tax was debated in the Pennsylvania State Legislature last year, Dr. Mark Stehr, a professor of business at Drexel University, conducted a study which found an increase would lead to 8,000 fewer smokers in the city.

This, combined with a massive education campaign throughout the country; a well-organized city public health apparatus; a young, national universal healthcare system which discourages smoking; Smoke Free Philly and its education campaign; and an already-declining smoking population; means whether the tax is temporary or not…it is.

Plus, the Philly government would find itself in the odd situation of both using tax dollars to discourage smoking, while relying on smokers to fund one of its most basic human rights. Assuming Philadelphians continue buying their cigarettes in the city.

This isn’t to say short-term ideas aren’t also needed. They are.

But taxing a product on the decline (partially because of said taxes) is not a way to fund a school district (or, well, anything.) The actual, obvious answer here is a school funding formula which would make sure the state’s public school students, teachers, and staff aren’t used as pawns each June.

Pennsylvania is one of just three states in which a formula is not law, so when the full-time legislature debates a yearly budget, education is definitively put on the chopping block.

Add to that the decision partially being made by politicians receiving donations from, and being lobbied by, anti-teachers’ union groups (like Americans for Prosperity, among others, who have discouraged increased school funding on the principle that graduation rates are low), and you end up with a school budget pieced together through reliance on, of all things, tobacco smoke.

About The Author

Staff writer

Randy LoBasso is the winner of the Pennsylvania Newsmedia Association's 2014 Distinguished Writing Award for his news and politics coverage at Philadelphia Weekly. He has also contributed to Alt Ledes, Salon, The Guardian and PennLive.

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