A proposal to raise Utah taxes on cigarettes by 3 1/2 cents a pack and spend the resulting $3.5 million in revenue on the war against drugs makes sense for at least two reasons.
First, an increase in the price of cigarettes tends to reduce the incidence of smoking, although 3 1/2 cents may not be much of a deterrent. Second, and more important, the money is sorely needed to deal with drug problems. The fight against drugs is shamefully underfunded.The tax hike was proposed a few days ago by the Utah Substance Abuse Coordinating Council, a group established by the Legislature to lead state efforts dealing with drug abuse.
Utah's current state tax on a pack of cigarettes is 23 cents - the same as South Dakota and Oklahoma and less than 21 other states. Another 3 1/2 cents would put the total state tax at 26 1/2 cents a pack, still less than 18 other states.
Most of the money raised by the additional tax - some $2.5 million - would be added to state-paid drug treatment programs for young users. The current $1.4 million budget can finance treatment for only about 750 young people. Adding the cigarette tax revenue would allow another 1,000 to be helped. Even that falls short of the real need. An estimated 16,000 young Utahns need substance-abuse treatment.
Failure to provide treatment can condemn young users caught up in drug abuse to wasted life of addiction and early death. Reaching only 750 out of a possible 16,000 is admitting defeat before the battle is fought.
Of the rest of the proposed cigarette tax money, some $500,000 would go into programs aimed at preventing drug abuse among college students and another $450,000 would be invested in a computerized network to share drug trafficking information among agencies.
Experience has shown that prevention and treatment programs work. The need is to have more of them.
Other requests to Gov. Norm Bangerter for anti-drug funding has come from the Department of Public Safety to hire an additional 33 Highway Patrol troopers for state highways after midnight. Drug runners apparently are taking advantage of the lack of nighttime coverage to transport drugs into and through the state.
But it should be remembered that the war against drugs is far more than law enforcement. While both are needed, drug treatment programs can be life savers in ways that are incomparably better than simply throwing people in jail.