Monday, February 9, 2009

Cloture in the Senate, Obama Speaks Out, Remarkable Poll Numbers, The Demonization of Smokers

Cloture Vote Succeeds
As was widely expected following the compromise deal struck with a few Republican Senators on Friday, the Senate voted 61-36 to block a Republican filibuster and move forward with a vote on passage of the stimulus bill, now scheduled for tomorrow. Voting in favor were every Democratic Senator, both independents (Sen. Sanders of Vermont and Sen. Lieberman of Connecticut) and the 3 Republicans that brokered the deal with Democrats (Sen. Snowe and Sen. Collins of Maine and Sen. Specter of Pennsylvania.)

This essentially ensures that the bill will pass tomorrow as everyone who voted for cloture is expected to vote for passage of the bill.

What remains is the House/Senate Conference that will have to iron out the differences in the bills the two houses passed. Passage of the conference report is virtually assured in the House, but the Conference Committee will have to be careful to craft something that can pass the thin super-majority in the Senate and retain the 3 Republican supporters (or at least 2 of them.)

Obama Speaks Out
A primetime news conference -- it has been a damn long time since I remember a President taking questions from the press in prime-time. Bush gave many prime-time addresses but saved the Q&A for mid-morning.

Obama was forceful, pointed and on-message. I wish he'd done this two weeks ago.

No major shockers, other than that the Washington Post would use it's one question to ask about A-Rod's steroid use. And that the Huffington Post has a seat at the table.

The Remarkable Obama Polls
President Obama retains remarkable public support three weeks into his administration, in spite of all the cabinet flubs and fighting over the stimulus package. While recent polls show different absolute numbers as the wording of the questions evokes more or fewer "unsure" reponses, Obama's ratio of approve to disapprove is at 3.3:1 in the latest CNN poll, 3.8:1 according to Pew Research and 2.9:1 according to Gallup. Suffice it to say, there are 3 people who approve of Obama for everyone 1 who disapproves. The only time I've seen poll numbers like this before are the first Bush during the midst of the Persian Gulf War and the second Bush immediately following September 11th.

As far as the stimulus is concerned, the ratio of support to oppose is at 1.5:1, according to the Pew poll, CNN had it pegged at 1.8:1.

While support for the stimulus is not as strong as support for Obama, both set of numbers are frankly overwhelming. Republicans had better hope for a long-run strategy, because in the short-run, they are battling a very popular president and a popular program from a position of weakness.

The Demonization of Smokers
I promised to write about this after discusisng how the expansion to the SCHIP program was funded by a 60-something cent increase in the federal excise tax on cigarettes. Opposing taxing smokers to fund children's health insurance is a tough sell. I'm a strong proponent of SCHIP expansion, just not the funding mechanism. This will no doubt make me very unpopular with a lot of my readers, but oh well.

Smokers today are demonized, taxed and outcast in American society in a way that we would never tolerate for obese people, alcoholics, stunt bikers or race car drivers. They are taxed insanely -- combined federal and state taxes in most states now amount to in excess of 100% on cigarettes. They are charged more for health coverage at work. They are pushed out of bars, restaurants, work places, casinos, hotels and in some place, apartments, beaches and city streets. They are banned from smoking in their cars with children. And again this year, they are being asked to pay more.

Let me talk about the primary arguments that anti-smoking advocates make for these laws and rules:
(1) Non-Smokers Represent 80% of the Population and Want Public Places to Be Non-Smoking
I don't doubt that this is the case, but this is a simple matter of letting the market work. You didn't have to outlaw smoking in hotels to get Marriott to go non-smoking, they simply had to assess the needs of their clients. Nor did McDonald's need a law to go non-smoking. The economics are simple -- if non-smoking is an important requirement for your bar, restaurant or hotel, don't patronize the places that allow it. What would have naturally developed would have been non-smoking establishments catering to non-smokers and smoking establishments catering to smokers. Everybody gets what they want.

(2) Non-Smokers Must Be Protected from Second Hand Smoke

Contrary to everything you have heard, the evidence on this topic is FAR from conclusive. Over 50 comprehensive studies on this topic have been conducted globally in the past 20 years. Of these, only TWO have shown statistically significant increases in smoking-related diseases for those inhaling second-hand smoke and ELEVEN have shown an actual decrease. This is hard to believe at first, with all the propaganda that has been put out. Penn and Teller did an excellent show on this topic a few years ago. Search the internet, read the research, draw your own conclusion. But read ALL the research, not just one or two cherry-picked studies.

(3) Smokers Deserve to Pay More Because They Cost The System More in Health Care
While there is dispute around the impacts of second-hand smoke, there is no dispute that smoking increases incidence of lung cancer, accelerates the onset of heart disease and contributes to a number of other serious health conditions. The best medical research that I've seen shows that for moderate smokers (1 pack / day), life expectancy is shortened by at least 3 and as many as 7 years.

But how does this increase costs to society? The diseases that smokers get early place a burden on the health care system, the argument goes. But everyone dies, and incurs medical costs when they do. Smokers don't die more, they just die SOONER. Everyone incurs medical costs when they die. But smokers earn less from pension funds, social security and require less years of Medicare on average because they don't live as long. It's morbid, but smoking SAVES society money.

Tobacco repression is a repression of the basic freedom of lifestyle choice that Americans have. We'd consider it repugnant to tax fat people, pregnant women and senior citizens extra, but they all cost more to care for. Singling out one social factor for excessive taxation because it is an unpopular habit is wrong. Excessive tobacco taxes are regressive as smokers tend to be less economically well off than non-smokers. It's easy to pick on smokers but wrong.

I welcome your comments as always.

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