Have Philadelphia and state government ever not been at odds? On the one hand, the state, embodied by both its lawmakers and residents, tends to think of Philadelphia as the place that all the tax money collected in Pennsylvania goes to take care of a crumbling education system and lots of poor people. Meanwhile, the metro area’s contribution to the state’s General Fund far exceeds its share of the population. That’s why it’s so irritating when the long arm of Harrisburg tries to reach into the city’s ability to govern itself. There’s the state takeover of the school board and the Parking Authority in 2001. Then there are the state’s attempts to preempt Philadelphia from enacting a wage equity bill that passed City Council, regulation of certain gun sales, a living wage, and now this: The state has preempted the city’s right to enact new regulations on tobacco sales.
To reduce the prevalence of smoking, the city in 2014 imposed a $2 tax per pack, which after an increase in state tax in 2016 made the total tax on each pack sold in Philadelphia $4.60. The revenue from the tax last year alone was close to $50 million for the School District. The city also restricts sales of tobacco products around schools. Big Tobacco is not happy with these efforts.
Recently, City Council introduced legislation to ban fruit- and candy-flavored cigars and cigarillos – products that appeal to children. The bill has 12 co-sponsors – enough to pass.
And that’s when Harrisburg shot them down, by inserting language in the budget that prohibits the city from making such a move on tobacco.
We might never know who introduced the provision. What we do know is that Altria – the parent company of Phillip Morris, and the maker of Black & Mild, the popular cigar and cigarillos brand — spent $3,337,498 on lobbying Harrisburg in the past five years.
While there are many reasons to support tobacco regulations, the threat posed by this type of preemption is much larger. It represents another victory of large multinational corporations to circumvent our democracy and prevent measures that are not good for business, even if they are good for health.
We have been in this rodeo recently with the beverage tax. That tax, imposed in January 2017, has continued to be the bane of the beverage industry and its pals. The tax was imposed only after a local court found it to be legal and dismissed a lawsuit brought by the American Beverage Association. The ABA appealed to an upper court, which upheld the lower court’s decision. The ABA appealed again, and arguments were heard in May before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Both sides now await the court’s decision.
In a time that Philadelphia and Pennsylvania find themselves in legal battles against the federal government, this infighting must cease. The goal of government is to execute the will of the people. In Philadelphia, the will of the people is a soda tax and a ban on the sale of flavored cigars.
State Republican lawmakers should remember the words of Paul Ryan, one of the leaders of the Republican Party, when he said, “Government closest to the people governs best.” Harrisburg, let Philly govern.
Correction: An earlier version of this editorial stated that in 2016 Philadelphia raised the tax on cigarettes. It was the state that raised the tax.