Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Veterans of tobacco wars see similarities, maybe answers, in the 'war on coal' or climate change

The fight between climate-change foes and coal over the Environmental Protection Agenc's proposed rules to cut carbon-dioxide emissions 30 percent by 2030, could resemble one fought in the 1990s over tobacco, writes Jonathan Weisman of The New York Times: "Federal and state officials keyed in on a widely reviled product pulled from the earth in some of the nation’s poorest regions, intent on regulating it to minimize its health effects and societal damage."

The outcome could be similar, if the government follows the same pattern, Weisman suggests after interviewing Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, who was a leader in the fight for the national settlement with cigarette manufacturers as attorney general of his state.

“We really were looking for a way to reimburse the states for the payments they were making for people hurt by disease, and to help the states that would be impacted most negatively if demand dropped” for tobacco, Bluemnthal told Weisman. “There is absolutely a way to do it again, and in the long run, those regions would be much healthier financially and economically to be less dependent on one product, especially a product of finite quantity in the ground, than to continue to eat, live and breathe coal.”

Some don't see enough similarity. Republican economist Doug Holtz-Eakin told Weisman, "In the end, smoking became unacceptable. That was not a legal statement. It was a social statement, and consensus was broad and has held for a long time. Maybe you get there on carbon emissions, but right now, this is an issue for the elites.”

There are major differences between smoking and coal, mostly that someone can quit smoking, but it's more difficult for someone to stop driving, Weisman writes. "The government’s method of weaning the nation from each product — by raising the price — has a regressive impact. In the case of carbon emissions, it hits not just the poor who can least afford higher energy prices but also those in rural areas who tend to drive long distances. The impact of raising the cost of fossil fuels would be broader than taxing tobacco."

But anti-tobacco activists went beyond the product, pointing the finger at manufacturers who knew the health risks involved, and not just for smokers, Weisman notes: "Legal action was meant to alleviate the broad societal cost of smoking — higher Medicaid costs, more intensive use of the health-care system and thus higher taxes. By demonstrating how everyone was hurt, tobacco opponents tried to engage the public."

Weisman writes, "Already, numerous economists have tried to devise a carbon tax that would be less harmful to the working class by using part of the proceeds to lower other taxes hitting workers. Last year, the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center explored using a carbon tax to generate the revenue to lower the corporate income tax, with tax rebates to help workers. That would help ease business opposition to carbon regulations. Blumenthal said that considering how the sale of carbon emissions permits to industry or a carbon tax could help the regions most hurt is 'a very important thought'.” (Read more) And the story doesn't note that President Obama said in his landmark speech on climate change last year that areas affected by new regulations deserved federal compensation.

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