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A not-so hypothetical: You’re puffing away on a cancer stick outside the Rivercenter Mall and some soccer mom keeps firing knife-edged scowls at you. You ignore her scorn and count smoke rings until she stomps over and asks you to respectfully estinguish it. What do you do? You could stub it out. Or you could scowl back and say, “Listen, lady, I’m smoking your kids through school, so go blow.”

The shopkeeps at most convenience stores have put up the warnings: As of January 1, the tax on cigarettes will increase by $1 a pack. In case you’re not counting, that’s a 343-percent increase from the previous 41-cent cigarette tax, or an extra nickel per smoke. The state legislature passed the tax in May to replace an unconstitutional 11-percent property tax appropriated for schools.

When a state legislature wants money, there are at least three secret-playbook options to raise taxes without looking like they’re raising taxes: They can: A) increase criminal fines (a tax, primarily, on fast drivers); B) increase lottery funding (a tax on the desperately optimistic); or C) increase tobacco taxes (a levy on the hopelessly addicted).

The political spin is that the tax will discourage smoking, but that doesn’t seem to agree with financial estimates from the Comptroller’s office. The tax is expected to produce $432 million in 2006, increasing to $731 million in 2009. Plus, if the legislature wanted to stomp out cigarettes (20 percent of the population smokes), surely they would’ve allocated some of the funds to tobacco prevention and cessation programs. Nope, and a recent report from the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids shows that Texas was the seventh-worst state in the union for tobacco-prevention spending. We spend $5.2 million (or 39 cents per Texan) annually on these programs —only 5 percent of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s minimum-spending recommendation.

This means pack-a-day Marlboro-Red-smoker Jack B. Ritchie’s household (his 19-year-old son smokes, too — “It’s kind of a family heritage”) will contribute more than $750 extra in taxes next year. Ritchie’s the Texas coordinator for The Smokers Club, Inc., a smoker’s-rights organization that talks in terms of civil rights and “unprotected minorities.” Ritchie’s been smoking since he was 11; he’s 55 now and doesn’t plan to quit.

“‘Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ without fear of oppression,” says Ritchie, quoting the Declaration of Independence. “See, people enjoy smoking ... and when people or groups or organizations or governments start discriminating against people, then they’re taking away their right to mutually exist.”

He adds: “Our anti-smoking movement is pretty much fashioned after the one Hitler had over in Germany. He hated smokers, too.”

In the meantime, Ritchie predicts smokers will turn to a booming black market. People can also switch to roll-yer-owns, which only received a 5-percent increase, or cigars, which the legislature wouldn’t dare touch.

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