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John Stossel: Punishing poor people

| Friday, Jan. 12, 2018, 8:57 p.m.
AP Photo
AP Photo

Store owner Kamal Saleh was just hit with thousands of dollars in fines.

His crime? He sold three cigars for $8.89. “Too cheap!” according to New York City bureaucrats. “The cigars should have cost 11 cents more.”

They decided this after anti-smoking crusader Kurt Ribisl told the Centers for Disease Control, “Higher prices will deter children from smoking.”

The pit of socialist micromanagers called the New York City Council quickly embraced the idea. When health totalitarians make suggestions, leftist politicians jump.

Ribisl also told the CDC, “Very cheap (tobacco) products should no longer be available.” So for my YouTube video this week, I asked him, “Why do you get to decide?!”

“No, I'm not deciding,” he insisted. “I'm a person who studies these policies. I'll let the policymakers decide.”

OK, I sighed, “Why do the politicians get to decide?”

“Cigarettes are the most lethal product ever introduced,” he replied.

That may be true, although few people realize that half the people who smoke do not die from tobacco-related illness.

Fatty foods, swimming pools and cars also kill lots of people. Maybe the health police will raise their prices next.

But so far, it's just tobacco.

At Ribisl's urging, New York City adopted price floors and taxes to bring the price of a pack of cigarettes to $13.

“People still have the ability to buy it, if they so choose,” he said.

“Just not poor people,” I told him. “You're screwing poor people.”

“We see much higher smoking rates among poor people,” answered Ribisl. “We need policies that are going to reduce tobacco use among poor people.”

I think all people should get to decide for themselves. But Ribisl wants to engineer “a transition toward thinking more about healthy food and beverage.”

At the CDC, Ribisl suggested that it should also be government policy to “reduce the number of tobacco stores.”

That seems cruel to store owners like Kamal Saleh. But Ribisl said, “We're not interested in putting stores out of business. ... They're going to find new products to sell.”

Really? How does he know?

New York already has a blizzard of regulations that put little stores out of business.

Tobacco sales regulations alone go on for 47 pages — confusing pages filled with fine print.

“For food, refrigeration, deliveries and everything else, the administrative code could be thousands of pages,” says lawyer Andrew Tilem.

Tilem defends store owners who get fined. Many can barely afford to pay him. Sometimes they pay in “fish and paper plates and tortillas.” Those who can't afford to hire a lawyer may just go out of business.

City Council meddlers, who often complain about “big business,” don't notice that their own rules make the big businesses bigger. “The big guy can hire lawyers,” says Tilem. “It's the little guy who's trying to pinch his pennies and make a dollar that has the biggest problem.”

Playing devil's advocate, I tell him, the government just wants to protect people's health.

“I'm not a smoking advocate,” Tilem replied, “but I think in this country ... people have the right to do the wrong thing.”

John Stossel is author of “No They Can't! Why Government Fails — But Individuals Succeed.”

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