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The Philadelphia School District: Up in smoke?

Is this the best way to fund a school district?
Is this the best way to fund a school district?

Okay, so we all know that smoking is bad news—or we certainly should at this point in the game given all the warnings over the years. As we’ve been told, for instance, not only are cigarettes highly addictive but …

  • There are more than 4,000 chemicals in cigarettes.
  • 250 of those chemicals are known to be harmful to humans.
  • Over 20% of all deaths in the U.S. are from tobacco use.
  • One person dies every 6 seconds from a tobacco-related disease; 10 per minute.
  • More than 600,000 non-smokers die each year from second-hand smoke worldwide.
  • In the U.S., each pack sold costs society an estimated $18.05.

And for such reasons, Philadelphia’s Mayor Nutter has waged all-out war against smoking—and smokers. First came his Clean Indoor Air Worker Protection Law on January 8, 2007 prohibiting smoking in workplaces, restaurants, and bars. Along with it, came the proclamation: “Philadelphians are now free to breathe cleaner air—without second-hand smoke. That’s good for business—and for health.”

He followed that up on May 23, 2011 by signing an executive order that made both indoor and outdoor recreation centers 100% smoke-free. That included playgrounds, ball fields, courts, parking lots, lawns, and pool areas. Then just this past April, he signed another executive order, this one expanding his 2011 edict to cover all city-owned parks. By the way, that very same month, he also banned e-cigarettes just about everywhere in the city; it went into effect on July 1.

Isn’t it ironic, then, that the mayor this summer has been out there pressing legislators to approve a $2-per-pack cigarette tax in Philly to help fund the city’s schools to the anticipated tune of $80 million? For now, though, he and district Superintendent William Hite must wait a bit for a ruling on the measure. That’s because the House cancelled its August session, thus pushing the vote on the tax until mid-September when they reconvene.

Meanwhile, Pennsylvania’s Governor Corbett recently authorized the payment of $265 million to the district, but that’s actually only an advance of monies already requested and budgeted for, not new revenue. The result: schools will open as scheduled on September 8, but with larger classes, decreased staff, and fewer supplies—even paper--amid the $81 million budget shortfall.

So, smoking has been pretty much banned within the city’s limits, but at the same time, the mayor and Hite need smokers to keep puffing away to help finance schools. Talk about a mixed message. And if, as expected, this so-called sin tax passes, a pack of cigarettes will go from the current $5.85 to a whopping $7.85.

And while the powers have their fingers crossed for this add-on, radio talk show host Dom Giordano recently spoke with the Commonwealth Foundation’s Nathan Benefield. As he explained, “That is a very temporary solution. Cigarette taxes are a declining source of revenue, and it’s easy to avoid the taxes, especially when you are talking about taxing it in Philadelphia. Smokers are just going to go right outside the city borders and shop for cigarettes there. Moreover, that doesn’t stop this long-term crisis we see in Philadelphia of under-performance, of families fleeing the district schools to go to charter schools, of spending increases and always running deficits, isn’t going to be solved by this one tax increase.”

And that’s for sure; here’s why. Last school year, the district adopted a $3.1 billion budget, and that still wasn’t enough. In the meantime, its biggest expense: $264 million in debt service payments. That would reportedly be enough to hire 2,400 teachers at an average salary of $67,000, plus average of benefits of $40,000 each! Even worse news is that the city’s bonds have just about hit junk status.

So, while it looks like this cigarette tax will ultimately pass, it’s only a temporary fix at best, and it’s going to take a lot more from all of us to dig the city’s schools out of the hole it’s in. And anyway, sticking it to smokers is no way to fund a school district. Your best bet if still lighting up? Make every effort to quit with these Mayo Clinic resist-the-craving tips:

  1. Try nicotine replacement therapy after consulting with your physician.
  2. Avoid such triggers parties, bars, and so on.
  3. Give yourself a wait time of 10 minutes, distracting yourself with some activity.
  4. Chew on such things as gum, hard candy, carrots, nuts, etc.
  5. Don’t just “have one,” as that one usually leads to another.
  6. Get physical with 30 minutes of walking, jogging, treadmilling, doing squats, and so on.
  7. Practice such relaxation techniques as deep breathing, yoga, visualization, hypnosis, and/or massage.
  8. Seek support from friends, family, or a group to help you resist.
  9. Go online to such sites as the Stop Smoking Centre, the CDC, and Quitnet for support and convincing stories.
  10. Remind yourself of the many benefits of quitting, such as better health, better breath, saving money, sparing others from your second-hand smoke, and on it goes.
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