Holler: Smokers getting burned again

Another proposal to (more heavily) tax smokers is hardly original and may simply drive that business out of state, causing lost revenue instead of an increase. Our resident smoker vents, then coughs in Gov. Dayton's general direction in disapproval.

I would like to take this time to "come out" and make a heartfelt admission to longtime Viking Update readers. It's a confession that has been years in the making. Until now, most people didn't know it. My own mother didn't know until years after I had realized it. When my father found out, he claimed, "I have no son!" That saddened me and infuriated my brother.

I'm a smoker.

Society has shunned me at every turn. Previous generations of my family could smoke openly, expressing a vaguely connected First Amendment right. Our founding fathers smoked. For generations, awkward teens have suddenly been viewed as being cool when they fire up a Marlboro. And let's not forget the cliché of what a disheveled man and woman simultaneously sparking up a heater signifies. All things considered, it used to be quite an achievement to be able to blow a Vegas bar-quality smoke ring. Now, it's little more than a noose.

Smokers are a minority in this country. It wasn't always that way. It's reverse-discrimination. Back in the day, there wasn't a carpet that didn't have at least one burn hole in it. There wasn't a suede jacket that didn't require dry-cleaning to rid the smoky goodness that worked its way into the fabric. Those were heady days indeed for the Parliament crowd.

At a time when equal rights were anything but equal, smokers ruled the day. Athletes fired up. Johnny's couch on "The Tonight Show" was consistently cleaned of stray ashes. Movie companies introduced product placement to have a screen star smoke their brand. The surgeon general shrugged and turned a blind eye. The pickings were lush. It was a great time to be a proud open-smoker.

Times have changed. Big time.

In an era where glass ceilings have been shattered and the causes of other minority groups have made incredible forward strides, the smoker has not only seen his or her rights thrown to the wind (like so much smelly smoke), but has witnessed it being done by a sanctimonious bipartisan group of hate-mongers who relish in making our minority group suffer – even more than taking a drag of a Camel through a trach-tube.

The latest assault comes via a proposal by Gov. Mark Dayton to raise the taxes on cigarettes by more than a dollar, part of which would be used as a backup funding source for the new Vikings stadium. It's a another burden to what our group is trying to overcome and the level to which we have been ostracized.

Over the last decade, our rights have been infringed upon with great joy and furious anger at the hands of non-smokers. They don't like the color of our lighters and, at a time when other groups have been embraced into the community of the whole, we have been treated not only as lepers in the communal colony, but a group that can be routinely robbed – of both our money and our dignity.

Our section on airplanes, which, for the record, was always in the back of the plane, has been eliminated. Government buildings banned smokers from being smokers inside their walls – even though many of their own employees were smokers themselves. We were banned in bars – where a surprising number of us would congregate to discuss our increasing banishment from "good society." Even NASCAR betrayed us. That will leave a mark.

Yet, when it came to government "sticking it" to a minority group, smokers felt the wrath of elitist cake-eating policy makers like few others – even in the Jim Crow days of "separate but equal" legislative separatism it wasn't quite so obvious. They couldn't come up the Final Solution to the smoker problem – we're a resilient breed – but they have herded us up like cattle once smoking bans were enacted. It advertised to everyone else that if you were a smoker, you deserved to be separated from the herd.

Then Dayton got an idea … an awful idea. The governor got a wonderful, awful idea.

The funding mechanism for the state's portion of the cost of building the new Vikings stadium – aside from the obvious jobs, payment for Minnesota-made bricks, mortar and electronics and the re-investment of that money back into the local economy – isn't coming up to snuff. Video pull tabs in bars (that don't allow smoking) haven't brought in the kind of revenue expected. The fact that they're in about 20 percent of the locations the business models projected may have plenty to do with that, but Dayton has come up with a backup plan.

His proposal for cutting the funding gap? Stick it to smokers. On Thursday, he proposed raising the tobacco tax in Minnesota to pay for a projected revenue shortfall in stadium funding protocol. As with anything Dayton does, it's not original. Failed presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty did the exact same thing – instead he justified his "no new taxes" pledge by calling the cigarette tax a "user fee." As such, I much prefer the taste of North Dakota cigarettes (which are $15 a carton less than Minnesota's). There's also a little thing called the World Wide Interweb, where, even with suffocatingly high shipping charges, one can acquire a taste for Russian cigarettes if bought in bulk. Their caviar is better. So are their smogs.

The simple fact remains that, if everyone in Minnesota simultaneously quit smoking, there wouldn't be a pothole filled on Minnesota highways, there would be teacher layoffs, free clinics would close and state parks would have to charge enormous fees for families to park their Winnebagos and "rough it" from noon to 5.

The best part of Dayton and Pawlenty's plans is that they have an addicted minority group at their disposal. Even if another spike in tobacco prices is enough to get some people to quit, there are more that can't be able to go cold turkey. It's like telling a Vicodin addict that the price is doubling. If they're hooked on it, they will get it.

Much like the tobacco companies the state demonized for exploiting an ignorant constituency when Minnesota won a massive federal court judgment and used that money to balance its own books, Minnesota has used the same blueprint for curing its own inept spending practices and failed policies. Stick it the smoker – this time the tobacco user, not the tobacco companies. They milked that cow dry. Who cares if smokers take the blade?

At a time when Republicans and Democrats can't agree that the sun rises in the East, they have taken a bipartisan approach to making smokers pay for their own financial failures. As one defiant lighter in the wind, I can absorb the hit. I've grown accustomed to the Cold War flavor of Moscoboros. Hopefully, political decision-makers will understand that our numbers are dwindling and, as a result, their finger-in-the-dike solutions won't last long. When you die, you quit paying the tax. Just sayin'.

It's getting to the point where tobacco users have become the beat-down minority of choice. Smoking marijuana has become more acceptable than smoking cigarettes. Need to raise money to balance the state books? Let's make smoking addicts pay the price and forbid them from exercising their rights to be a smoker everywhere outside of their own personal property – and even not in their own vehicle if it travels to "Non-Smoker Only" zone. Somewhere Jim Crow is stroking a cat and laughing so loud he snaps his head back.

Make no mistake about this: Minnesota is going to make its investment back on the new Vikings stadium in the week the Super Bowl comes back and media types relish in being able to get from their hotel to the venue without having to experience February in Minny. That is, of course, if they don't smoke. If they do, then they get the full Minnesota winter experience – for 90 seconds a pop.

You likely won't see a pro-smoking answer to the "Duck-and-Govern" Dayton proposal because, for the most part, opponents are typically at the lower level of the economic scale. But let the think tank in St. Paul (an oxymoron on the highest order) ponder this: if you raise the price of cigarettes to a level where it becomes better than currency, when will the black market become the common market? A paper grocery bag can hold 15 cartons of cigarettes and not break. If plans take place as proposed, that weight-bearing bag would contain more than $1,000. I would win a non-smoking bar bet that I could carry 30 cartons of cigarettes out of a remote gas station with a more-than willing clerk in charge.

If nothing else, Dayton's proposal will create new jobs. Unfortunately for him, it will be jobs in which the first business transaction starts with the phrase, "Psst…hey buddy!" outside a windowless van. But, as Dayton is quick to point out, a Minnesota job is a Minnesota job.

John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.

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