Read Obama's Lips: New Taxes?

This Associated Press story about Obama breaking his campaign promises by raising the tax on tobacco products seems like a bit of a stretch. The promise in question? Obama's September 2008 claim that "no family making less than $250,000 a year will see any form of tax increase" under an Obama presidency. The increase in question? An additional 62 cent tax on each pack of cigarettes.


Taxing tobacco violates the letter of the promise -- it's a promise made in superlatives, after all -- but it seems obvious to me that it doesn't violates the spirit. When Obama says there will be no tax increases on families making less than $250,000 a year, he doesn't mean "taxes that incidentally fall on some families in that range." He means taxes that fall on those families because they make less than $250,000 a year.

So sure, some people who are part of families making less than $250,000 smoke. But there's no necessary connection between lighting up and making less than a certain amount. The overlap is accidental, not intentional.

More importantly, the story puts the process of politics above the substance of politics. Raising a tax on cigarettes, like raising a tax on gasoline, is the kind of pigouvian tax that conservative economists like Greg Mankiw and Jeffrey Miron should love. Smoking has all sorts of negative externalities that a government can rightly correct.

But few people are going to discuss the merits of this policy shift. Instead, they will get hung up on the horserace questions -- who said what, and when they flip flopped. They will mention the irony: Obama himself is (or was) a smoker. But will they mention the obvious -- that this tax is a good idea?