Electricity and Gasoline Taxes and Asthma (yes, they’re connected)

December 21, 2006 at 5:10 pm (Michael's Posts)

So I’ve been a little absent lately for a number of reasons, but this will hopefully mark my re-entry into the Blog-O-Sphere. I have been thinking about health very Globally lately (strange, no?) and I am arriving at some interesting conclusions.
I think that we as health people have the obligation to hook up with economy people and environmental people and political people and do some changing around here.
I don’t know how much attention the alarming rise in the prevalence of asthma in inner cities (well, in cities in general) has gotten, but I think it should get re-examined. Asthma is something easily treated with inhalers, etc and so we don’t really think about it. When was the last time someone you know was killed by asthma? I know of one young man who went to my brother’s school out of all the people I have ever met. That’s not an enormous number and its smallness says something. Asthma is not grabbing headlines as a killer.
But it is infringing greatly on millions of lives (20 million, according to this site). This should also include those suffering from chronic bronchitis (9.05 million) and emphysema (3.57 million). Some of these people may be feeling the effects of smoking, but some are suffering for other reasons.
People who suffer from chronic lung dysfunction are greatly limited in the things they can do. Even with an inhaler, sufferers are unable to choose to do many of the things that those who are asthma-free can.
Get ready, I’m going to take a bit of a leap in the form of a series of very rhetorical questions.
Is this not a fundamental infringement on the basic freedoms guaranteed us by the constitution? Does our government not have the obligation to protect these fundamental freedoms? Is this not why we pay taxes? To protect Freedom?
Well, White House, I have a request. Read our little article and discussion on the scaling-down of regulations on coal power plants (More Polychlorinated Biphenyls, Please) and then think about your obligation to the residents of coal-powered states who are breathing air clouded with particulate pollution and eating food poisoned with mercury. Or fly into any urban center on a sunny day and note the brown rim that hovers in the air just above the tallest buildings, invisible from the ground but so obvious and sickening from the air. Do you think that cloud of pollution is benign as it is breathed in every moment by city-dwellers?
The United States is responsible for 25% of the world’s CO2. This is unacceptable. It’s because we drive too much and because we drive inefficient cars. It’s also because we consume too much fossil fuel in power generation. Why? Because we want to destroy the environment!
No. Actually, our prices are artificially low. They do not take into account all of the costs associated with them. Power costs do not reflect the impact of fossil fuel power on the environment or our health. It’s electricity, though! It’s not dirty! It’s just electrons! But how do we make those electrons flow through the power cords? Coal! Oil! Gasoline costs do not take into account that all of the junk that comes out of tailpipes and apparently just goes “up into the air” (that we’re BREATHING) is costing us years of productive life and wellness. These years are worth something. “That’s fine,” we say, “because when I get my bill, I’ll just pay it.”
But what about the freedom to pursue life and liberty and happiness? What if that’s limited by the rashness of unregulated pollution? Is there not a moral quandary here? I think that this freedom is priceless and we ought to treat it as such. By placing an appropriate tax on gasoline, use would decrease as prices rose. Air pollution would fall. By placing a similar tax on power production, energy prices would rise and we’d be more careful about how much power we use and again, air pollution would fall.
What’s that Big Oil? Detroit? You have some qualms?
DEAL WITH IT. We have the technology and the brains to build more efficient cars. We must find some way to do it. If this research and development was driven by prices that included the true costs of our lifestyles, it would get done. But unfortunately, government bodies are the only bodies that can enforce a tax that would make our prices truly appropriate. And they are suckers for the Oil Lobby and the Car Lobby. But those powers can be fought.
So. Here’s my proposal.
Environmental people: Figure out what can be cut. What are the current impacts and by how much SHOULD we lessen them?
Economy people: come up with a tax that could bring about this change. Current costs and use patterns versus ideal use patterns.
Politics people: lobby, lobby, lobby! Use the good information from the Environmentalists and Economists to convince our friends in Washington that there’s good reason to do this. We got people to quit smoking through a simple tax and tobacco is a HUGE industry. Why not this?
Health people: keep putting pressure on things like this and using your experience on the ground level of things to inform the others. As the people with their fingers on the pulse, we carry weight in society and it’s time to put that weight to good use.
Ideas?

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2 Comments

  1. aebeacon said,

    Michael,

    I think your basic supposition is correct, through our consumption of fossil fuels we are indeed creating a gathering whirlwind of respiratory disease particularly amongst poor and urban dwellers. In the world of public health disease like asthma that don’t often lead directly to fatalities receive little airtime and even less funding. However, the decreased ability to exercise associated with asthma may be dramatically contributing to a host of other obesity related diseases which are quite fatal. This is definitely an underappreciated disease and I’m glad you brought it up.

    On the gas tax. You may remember that a few years ago the Northeast experienced a pretty serious winter. This winter happened to coincide with high fuel costs. The result was dramatic; the poor around New England could not afford to heat their homes leaving many to choose between food and warmth. Fossil fuels are not like cigarettes, given our environs, they are often as essential as the houses that they help heat. I am, however, down with taxing cars which get fewer than __ miles per gallon. Few people really need that SUV but if they do want it, they should definitely be paying the rest of us for our trouble (and inner city kids for their asthma). Car companies will respond because the most environmentally friendly cars will be cheaper to the consumer. Admittedly US car manufacturers (who in their infinite wisdom opted to go larger instead of green) will suffer and in many ways already are suffering. However, its time for our government and ultimately us as the consumers to speak out. I don’t think taxing only the auto industry is appropriate but its definitely a start.

    Other ideas?

    Æ Beacon

  2. Alex said,

    Just a quick comment here, being one of the enviros of whom you speak – the question of how much we “should” reduce air pollution, fossil fuel consumption, consumption in general, etc., etc., etc., in order to keep this planet livable, is not a question at all. The answer is, cut it by as much as you feasibly can, because at this point (and not to be an alarmist, it’s just a fact) any fossil fuel use is too much. I’m not saying we have to stop using them (obviously I use them every day too), but there’s no “should” in this equation. The equation’s already irreperably out of balance, and there’s no turning back now. What it’s about today is technology; through no other means will we be able to cope with our warming climate, or our increasing asthma rates. This is what your average joe just doesn’t understand about the environment – it’s not about the future. It’s about what we’ve done in the past, that is having consequences now. So let’s stop talking about environmental problems like they’re things that we can stop before they’ve started, and that have acceptable levels. No mercury in my fish is acceptable, no nox in my air, no POPs in my water. Period. Whether that’s feasible or not is a different issue, but as for the question of what’s appropriate – that we already know.

    Which goes to my second comment, in response to this issue of heating oil. Yes, it’s essential for heating homes, but that’s what the environmental movement is about – making it not essential anymore. And that is partly done through the economic encouragement of alternative energy. Fossil fuels may be essential now, but that’s not an acceptable situation either.

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