I don't have any problem with taxing cigarettes, as many ar suggesting, to help pay for the anticipated Clinton health care package. For me, this is a highly principled stand, based mostly on the fact that I don't smoke. (We'll get to the beer tax another day.)
The problem I have is with the concept of a "sin" tax.
You see, once you officially make cigarette smoking a sin, you've pretty much lost the battle.
People love to sin, especially if they can do it for under five dollars and it isn't likely to involve an extended period in a lockup.
Even with an additional two-bucks-a-pack tax, you could still file smoking under "cheap thrills."
Think about this: Why do kids start smoking?
For the delicious, throat-searing taste?
For the thrill of that first hacker's cough?
For the chance to meet Joe Camel, the cigarette industry's huggable answer to Barney?
They smoke because somebody (read: parents, teachers, probation officers) said it was bad.
By bad, we mean, of course, dangerous. By dangerous, we mean sexy. You can see where this leads. How long from that first puff will it be before you find yourself coveting your neighbor's wife?
The fairly standard definition of sin is any activity that someone of authority -- usually either a religious or governmental figure -- has determined is too much fun for the general population to enjoy.
That's why products are advertised as sinfully delicious.
In some cultures, dancing is a sin. In others -- not in places you'd want to live, however -- it's perfectly acceptable to do the lambada. The point is that sin is hardly an absolute term.
Once upon a time, cigarette smoking was seen not as sinful but as sophisticated. That's a subtle but important distinction. When Humphrey Bogart was bogarting his cigarettes and Bette Davis was sporting cigarette holders, we knew we needed to light up in order to affect a certain savoir-faire.
Eventually, despite the best efforts of the tobacco industry (bumper sticker: Cigarettes don't kill people; lung cancer kills people), smoking has come to be seen as an ugly habit that doesn't simply do in the smoker, but also unsuspecting members of his family.
Here's the rub: The more unacceptable smoking becomes, the more likely it is to be seen as dangerously chic. Smoke fast, die young.
Fashion designers are quickly discovering that principle. Recently, the New York Times produced a layout of fashion advertising featuring models who smoke.
The idea is to shock. You don't usually see people smoking in the mainstream media.
Even most of the smoking ads have people hugging dogs or riding horses or maybe playing volleyball at beaches that are somehow not butt-infested.
So, when you see a model with a cigarette dangling from her mouth, it's like seeing her take a swig of Jack Daniel's.
In a striking example, an advertisement from a magazine called W -- apparently for people who have mastered "A" through "V" -- features a model named Cosima wearing a black, strapless sheath (otherwise called a dress).
She has closely cropped hair and a very dark, eyes-narrowed, La Femme Nikita-style, provocative look. She is meant to exude danger.
And clenched between her teeth -- as the final touch -- is a dead cigarette butt.
This is nothing to do with the concept that you've come a long way, baby. This is Bonnie Parker sporting a cigar and a machine gun.
Dangerous? Yes, it's a little silly, particularly when you consider that the dress, from the Herve Leger collection, costs $7,535. This is the fashion industry's idea of rebellion: You purchase a $7,000 designer dress in order to flout society's conventions.
But you can see what's going on.
That's why we can't have a sin tax, as such. It shouldn't be a smoking-is-unhealthy tax either. If we want to discourage young people from smoking -- and that would be part of the justification for the tax -- we'll need to be creative.
It would have to be something like an it's-hard-to-look-dangerous-when-coughing-your-brains-out tax.
Or a smoking-makes-your-teeth-and-fingers-turn-yellow tax.
Or this: If-your-parents-smoked-how-cool-could-it-be tax.