Does New Hampshire really smoke like a locomotive?

The interesting graphic above details cigarette sales state by state between 1970 and 2012. While there’s no question smoking has declined in the US over the past 40-plus years, the trend has nuances not indicated in the chart.

If one looks at the map for 2012, the last year shown, cigarette sales are greatest in West Virginia, Kentucky and New Hampshire, with the three states registering 105, 100 and 94 packs sold per resident, respectively.

New Hampshire would seem out of place with Kentucky and West Virginia, two states located firmly in the Appalachians, where smoking is more accepted culturally in a region noted for its blue-collar lifestyle.

On the other hand, a significant portion of New Hampshire now serves as a bedroom community for Massachusetts’ white collar labor force, with the commensurate rise in housing bringing an increasing number of young middle- and upper-middle class individuals into the state, hardly the sort known for consuming large amounts of smokes.

However, it almost certainly wasn’t nicotine-frenzied Granite State residents alone that drove New Hampshire cigarette sales in 2012, but individuals from all of New England.

In 2012, a pack of cigarettes cost $4.86 in New Hampshire, compared to $6.97 in neighboring Maine, $7.60 in Vermont and $8.49 in Massachusetts. Prices were almost as high or even higher in the other two New England states: $8.16 a pack in Rhode Island and $8.85 in Connecticut.

Cigarette sales per capita, 2012.

Cigarette sales per capita, 2012. Click on to understand.

Factor in that New Hampshire has no sales tax and you had a happy hunting ground for those wanting to stock up on cheap cigarettes. And the difference in price made a short drive worthwhile: someone from Massachusetts, for example, who drove over the border to New Hampshire could save nearly $75 on just two cartons (20 packs) of cigarettes.

West Virginia’s average price for cigarettes in 2012 was $4.84 a pack, the lowest in the country. Prices in all neighboring states were higher: Virginia, $5.43; Ohio, $5.67; Maryland, $6.53; Kentucky, $6.56; and Pennsylvania, $6.93. It’s easy to see that residents in border states would likely at least partly drive up sales in a bid to save money.

Kentucky, however, is an outlier. Its price per pack wasn’t cheap – it ranked in the top half of the nation in terms of cost per pack in 2012 – so why did it come in second in per capita cigarette sales?

Looking at the cost of cigarettes in surrounding states, Tennessee, $4.91 a pack; Virginia, $5.43; Indiana, $5.56; Missouri, $5.87; and Illinois, $10.25, all but the latter are cheaper than Kentucky.

However, Kentucky had just seen prices spike due to increases in state and federal cigarette taxes, raising the cost per pack from $4.97 to $6.56.

While some Kentuckians may have been able to cross the border to buy less-expensive smokes in bordering states, it was likely inconvenient for others to do so, due to distance and terrain. And, of course, some people are going to smoke, no matter what the expense. Over time, Kentucky’s per capita rate will drop, but not into the range of, say California or Utah.

And it doesn’t matter how high the government raises cigarette taxes; at some point, smokers will simply begin buying tax-free bootleg smokes.

So while smoking is certainly on the decline in the US, trying to gauge the impact of tax increases on smoking on a state-by-state basis is an iffy proposition. Pushing up the price of cigarettes in one state may simply be driving at least a portion of consumers to surrounding states, particularly if prices are significantly lower.

(HT: Carpe Diem)

I’ll see your plutonium and raise you one microgram of californium

californium-knows-how-to-party

When comparing apples and oranges, the former sell for nearly double the latter, at least according to what’s available at a nearby grocery store. Yet the price per ounce – 10 cents and 5 cents, respectively – are miniscule compared to some of the world’s rarer materials.

Consider white truffles: An ounce of the prized fungus, which grows for just a couple of months of the year almost exclusively in one part of Italy and is best located by special pigs, sells for more than $140 an ounce. Seem excessive? That doesn’t even begin to compare with some even more expensive items, according to the online publication Visual Capitalist.

Saffron, a spice native to Greece and Southwest Asia and used mainly as a seasoning and coloring agent in food, goes for more than $310 an ounce.

Palladium, a rare metal used in catalytic converters, among a number of items, sells for more $500 an ounce, while gold, the monetary standby of yore, is currently fetching nearly $1,200 an ounce.

Iranian beluga caviar, taken from sturgeon found mainly in the Caspian Sea, brings nearly $1,000 an ounce.

Yet those don’t come close to some upper-end items, according to the Visual Capitalist.

Plutonium, the radioactive element used in the first atomic bomb and employed at nuclear power plants, goes for more than $110,000 an ounce.

The Visual Capitalist estimated that an ounce of high-quality diamonds, nearly 142 carats, would sell for more than $1.8 million.

Finally, californium, a man-made element used to help start up nuclear reactors, would sell for more than $750 million an ounce – if that much californium could ever be produced.

Today, californium can be made only in milligram amounts and is available from the US government for $10 per millionth of a gram, a microgram.

How big would one-millionth of gram of californium be? I don’t know, but it’s probably not something you want to trust the summer intern with.

(Top: Slightly humorous meme in place of image of Californium, which is so small and rare that no decent image of it can be found on the internet.)

Ability to sustain pearly platitudes dwindling rapidly

sustainable

Yet another word battered into meaningless by overuse and corporate marketing.

Here’s a hint: once the big boys of industry start littering their advertising with a specific term, such “sustainable” or “going green” or “giving back,” that term has probably not only been utterly co-opted, but lost any real meaning.

Sustainability, or its elite cousin, “sustainable development,” always seemed like a loaded term, anyway – another way of saying that a small group somewhere thinks it should have the ability to control how a much larger segment of people live their lives, based on what the smaller group believes is in everyone’s best interests.

The goal of sustainability is what’s best for the planet. The problem is, who’s determining what’s best for whom, and what the cost in economic, political and intellectual liberty?

Most of us, say, can agree it would be nice if the Amazon wasn’t stripped to look like a World War I battlefield. But is it right to tell the dirt-poor Brazilian farmer, trying to scratch out of a living, that he can no longer clear trees to grow crops to feed his family and try to earn a living, so that first-world do-gooders can feel like they’ve effected change?

I’ll have the free lunch – as long as he’s paying for it

freelunch_thumb

Here’s an unsurprising bit of news out of our nation’s capital:

An overwhelming majority of Washington, D.C., residents support a proposal before the District Council to give each worker in the city 16 weeks of paid time off to care for a newborn or for a dying family member, according to the Washington Post.

The predictable part is that more than half of those polled also say they don’t want workers themselves to have to pay for the largesse.

Sorry, guys (and gals), but as Milton Friedman stated ever so eloquently, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Someone somewhere is going to have to pick up the tab.

If you understand and accept that you’re going to pay one way or the other, that’s fine. But if you expect others to willingly pony up, or that benefits will flow like manna from heaven, you’ve got another thing coming.

The last time I looked the District of Columbia doesn’t have its own printing presses with which to churn out money, so D.C. would have to raise taxes and/or cut employees to pay for such a benefit.

Understand, that’s not a judgment on whether the benefit is worth the cost, but a simple matter of fact. If workers are going to be allowed 16 weeks of paid time off to care for newborns or dying family members, the district will need funds to oblige.

Those pushing for the minimum wage to be increased to $15 an hour need to recognize this reality, as well. Over the course of a year, a full-time worker making $15 an hour would earn a little more than $32,000. That’s all well and good but, again, that money has to come from somewhere.

As the alchemists of old discovered, you can’t get something for nothing. There is a cost to every benefit, even if that cost is hidden. To pretend otherwise is to be foolish, disingenuous or willingly naïve.

Romania: Trying to recover from bad luck, bad choices

antonescu and hitler

The 20th century was, to be blunt, pretty crappy for citizens of many countries. Those of the Soviet Union, who were forced to endure two world wars, civil war, the onset of communism and Stalin’s murderous regime, had it particularly bad, for example.

Other nations that had a rather rough go of it during the 20th century include:

  • Poland (the loss of 450,000 men in World War I even though it was not independent at that point, a war with the Soviets from 1918-1921, invaded and decimated by Nazi Germany with a huge loss of life – estimated at more than 6 million, including 3 million Jews – then placed under Soviet hegemony for 45 years);
  • Korea (annexed and brutally subjugated by Japan from 1910 to 1945, divided and then involved in a ruthless civil war from 1950-53, and both North Korea and South Korea still at daggers with one another); and
  • The former Yugoslav republics (cobbled together in part through Woodrow Wilson’s machinations after World War I, invaded by the Nazis – who set up a brutal puppet state – commandeered by Tito after the war, and finally rent asunder by brutal internecine conflict in the 1990s).

Another country that would probably like a do-over for the 20th century is Romania, which didn’t acquit itself very well in either world war and suffered under the whip of two particularly odious dictators during the Cold War.

Romania chose to remain neutral for the first two years of World War I before joining with the Entente Powers in the summer of 1916. Unfortunately,  Romania then quickly found itself overwhelmed by the Central Powers, which occupied two-thirds of the country.

When Russia capitulated to Germany following the Russian Revolution, Romania found itself surrounded and was forced to sign a harsh peace treaty. Although it was ultimately able to acquire territory under the Treaties of Saint Germain, Trianon and Paris, total Romanian military and civilian losses between 1916 and 1918 were estimated at nearly 750,000.

Things turned out even worse in the Second World War for Romania. Originally loosely affiliated with Great Britain and France, Romania opted to align itself with Nazi Germany after the start of World War II when the Nazis made quick work of most of Western Europe.

Seventy-five years ago this week, the Romanian government, under the control of fascist Ion Antonescu, officially threw its lot in with the Axis Powers, signing the Tripartite Pact.

Continue reading

Social media provides needed kick in rump to insurers

health

Perhaps social media does have a bit more value than my curmudgeonly self would care to admit.

Last week I wrote about a friend who is battling leukemia. Beyond the difficulties associated with fighting a life-threatening condition, she had also been clashing with her insurers, Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Florida (Florida Blue) and Prime Therapeutics, both of which had denied her coverage for needed cancer-treatment medication.

As a result, she’d gone more than a month without medicine.

It’s not as if my friend was attempting to secure reimbursement for experimental medicine or didn’t have sufficient coverage. Florida Blue was simply giving her the runaround, even though my friend’s prescription was on its list of approved medications.

Even with her medical team working to help her, the companies denied coverage, claiming, among other things, that they had not received the information.

Doctors, nurses and health care providers worked diligently to get the correct papers into the hands of my friend’s insurers for several weeks. Yet, a month later she was still without needed medicine and still without answers.

Taking a break from such earth-shattering revelations as smoking birds and personal issues with LinkedIn, I detailed the above in a Sept. 30 post.

Around the same time, another friend started a GoFundMe campaign to help raise money to buy a fax machine for Florida Blue. That was because the insurer had told my friend with leukemia that one of the reasons they hadn’t received her doctors’ requests for authorization because their “fax machine was busy.”

As was stated on the GoFundMe site: “I want to raise enough money to buy a cheap-ass fax machine for Florida Blue so they can help dying people get their treatments. I would also like to buy them a time machine so they could move boldly into the 1990s, but that’s another issue.”

Within a short while Twitter was aflutter with tweets about Florida Blue’s (and Prime Therapeutics’) shenanigans, as was Facebook, and before long a representative from Florida Blue, having noticed the publicity, decided to step in to handle the case.

Around the same time, an individual with Prime Therapeutics posted a comment on my blog expressing her desire to assist my friend.

By last Saturday, my friend had her medicine in hand.

This happened because people got the attention of Florida Blue and Prime Therapeutics through social media, and because there were individuals at both companies who were willing to make a special effort to help my friend cut through unnecessary red tape and get her medication.

My friend is not out of the woods, but she is fortunate to have many friends who are or were journalists. They understand how to use social media and publicity to get things done. However, it should never have required scores and scores of people, if not more, using social media to get Florida Blue to do the right thing.

All of which raises other questions:

  • What happens to the vast majority of the population that doesn’t have a slew of publicity savvy friends at their disposal?
  • Where do those who are older and may not have the strength to keep fighting turn when they’ve been denied needed medicine that they’re entitled to under the terms of their insurance?
  • How many have died because insurers essentially waited them out, understanding full well that some of the ailing wouldn’t have the strength, willpower or ability to fight for what they’re entitled to?

I’ll not get into the injustice of a young mother being stricken with leukemia. There are some situations in life that one simply cannot wrap one’s mind around.

But I will say that those who work in the health field, including health insurers, should do all within their power to make the lives of those they serve easier – rather than more difficult – when their customers find themselves facing life or death scenarios.

Connecticut determined to pluck every feather from golden goose

Connecticut_State_Capitol,_Hartford

If one wanted to chart a course for steering a state onto the shoals, look no further than Connecticut.

Twenty-five years ago, the Nutmeg State had no state income tax and served as tax refuge for many New York City workers.

Those days are long gone; last week the Connecticut legislature again raised state income tax rates, with the top marginal rate set to rise to 6.99 percent.

Of course, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy promised during his re-election campaign last year that he wouldn’t raise taxes, but that’s the same thing he said in 2010, a year before he signed a $2.6 billion tax hike.

The thing is, it’s not like Connecticut is growing like gangbusters and can afford to bleed its citizens dry.

According to the Wall Street Journal:

…the state grew a scant 0.9% in 2013, the last year state data are available. That was tied for tenth worst in the U.S. The state’s average compounded annual growth for the last four years is 0.42%. Slow growth means less tax revenue but spending never slows down. Some “40% of the state budget goes to government employee compensation and benefits, including payroll, state pensions, teacher pensions and current and retiree health care,” says Carol Platt Liebau, president of the Hartford-based Yankee Institute. …The Tax Foundation ranks Connecticut as one of the 10 worst states to do business. The state finished last in Gallup’s Job Creation Index in 2014 and now ties with Rhode Island for the worst job creation in the index since 2008.

The Journal added that Connecticut was one of six states that lost population in fiscal 2013-2014, and a Gallup poll in the second half of 2013 found that about half of state residents would migrate if they could.

If all of the above weren’t bad enough, lawmakers also made permanent a 20 percent surtax on Connecticut-based companies’ annual tax liability – a tax on a tax – which would be figured on Connecticut companies’ world-wide income, rather than what they earn in the state, according to the Journal.

Consider some of the corporations headquartered in Connecticut: Aetna, Cigna, General Electric, Pratt & Whitney, Praxair and Xerox.

Why would any of the above stay in Connecticut when faced with this kind of competitive disadvantage?

No doubt economic development officials in low-tax states such as Texas and Florida are giddy with anticipation at getting a shot at landing the likes of a GE or Pratt & Whitney.

“The high marginal rates are bad enough, but it is an astonishing overreach to tax corporations headquartered in your state based on their worldwide income,” according to the Coyote Blog. “This leads to a huge double taxation problem for any company dumb enough to stay.”

(Top: Connecticut Statehouse, Hartford, Conn.)