WASHINGTON -- When the idea first surfaced of assessing "sin" taxes on cigarette and alcohol sales to help pay for President Clinton's ambitious health-care package, the rationale was clear. Since consumption of both, particularly in excess, was increasingly recognized as a health hazard significantly adding to the nation's health-care bill, why not make the users pay their fair share?
The idea had the added virtue in its proponents' eyes of encouraging taxpayers to smoke less or not at all if the tax were high enough, and to cut down on alcohol abuse as well.
The booze industry, reminding the White House that Joe Sixpack, allegedly the core Democratic constituency, might not think very kindly of the notion of Uncle Sam raising the ante on his beer-guzzling, apparently has succeeded in short-circuiting any new alcohol tax.
But the tobacco industry, whose product has been much more well-defined as a costly cause of serious heart, lung and other diseases, has not been as successful. Clinton has already said a considerably higher cigarette tax will be part of the financing of the health-care package, and aides indicate it will be in the range of 75 cents to a dollar more a pack.
If the premise is valid that products that cause bad health or even death should be taxed to help pay for the new, expanded health-care plan, then the proposal of several House and Senate Democrats certainly merits support.
Freshman Rep. Mel Reynolds of Illinois was the first to propose levying a 25 percent sales tax on handguns, and freshman Sen. Patty Murray of Washington wants to boost the current license fee on gun dealers, which ranges up to $70, to $2,500. Another proponent, Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey, said at a Senate Finance Committee hearing the other day that $600 million could be raised in this way from "the purveyors of violence."
Murray would funnel the tax money to hospitals whose emergency rooms are strained by patients with gunshot wounds and no insurance. According to a 1991 study of the Advisory Council on Social Security, it costs $4 billion a year to treat victims of gunshot wounds, 85 percent of whom have no health insurance.
The scheme, predictably, will be opposed tooth-and-nail by the National Rifle Association. The mild Brady Bill calling for a five-day waiting period for handgun sales has Clinton's backing but it still hasn't passed, a measure of the NRA's continued clout in Congress.
But this may at last be the time to put the gun lobby on the run. Washington is awash again in stories of random shootings, the latest producing the death of a 4-year-old girl watching a neighborhood football game with her mother. Casting gun control in the context of a national health hazard, and requiring those who buy and sell guns to help pay the bill their actions increase, is something the president ought to embrace wholeheartedly.
The NRA's phony contention that the Second Amendment assures the individual's right to bear arms under any circumstances has already been refuted in several courts. Local bans on gun ownership in several Chicago suburbs have been on the books for several years now without successful challenge by the NRA.
The gun lobby has also taken its lumps recently in Virginia, where a law now limits sales to one a month as a means of combating mass gun traffic, and in New Jersey, which has passed a ban on semiautomatic assault rifles. The gun-related sin taxes could deal a tremendous blow to gun traffic, or at least raise a bundle of money to help pay for the health damage guns are doing.
The NRA's argument against any gun-control measure always is that gun collectors and hunters will be punished and that criminals will get guns anyway, illegally. The same argument will be heard against the proposed high taxes on gun sales and dealers, but the legislation could be written in ways to zero in on the kinds of handguns and assault weapons that have no sporting purpose and are bought only to shoot people.
One of the principal doubts about the Clinton health-care package concerns estimated costs and savings. If $600 million can be captured by making these "purveyors of violence" pay more for their conduct, Clinton should grab for it with both hands.