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msnbc.com contributor
updated 4/1/2011 6:43:46 PM ET 2011-04-01T22:43:46

Like many states, Arizona faces a serious budget crisis. But unlike other states, Arizona public officials have shown a remarkable skill for finding ways to address their projected $1.6 billion deficit that are unfair, unjust and cruel. Their latest bright idea is to balance the state budget on the bodies of poor Arizonans who are unlucky enough to be fat or addicted to tobacco.

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Gov. Jan Brewer has now proposed levying a $50 fee on state Medicaid recipients who are obese and who don't follow a doctor-supervised slimming regimen. She also wants to charge those who smoke.

The plan, if approved by the Republican-dominated legislature, would mark the first time a state-run but federally subsidized health-care program for the poor has charged people for unhealthy acts.

The Wall Street Journal quoted Monica Coury, spokeswoman for Arizona's Medicaid program as endorsing the idea, saying "If you want to smoke, go for it. But, understand you're going to have to contribute something for the cost of the care of your smoking."

She added that the proposal is a way to reward good behavior and raise awareness that certain conditions, including obesity, raise costs throughout the state Medicaid system.

This noodle-headed idea comes from the same governor and legislature that last year decided the way to balance the budget was to rescind coverage for Arizonans waiting for organ transplants. Not new cases, mind you, but people to whom coverage had been promised. Now in its wake comes a "sin tax" for the smoking, trouser-splitting poor.

Story: Arizona considering $50 tax for smokers, obese

Put aside the issue of whether smokers actually save the state money by dying young. Ignore the question of why it is fine to sin if you are rich but if you are dirt poor, then you will be taxed for gobbling too many calories or sneaking smokes. And pay no mind to the fact that the people who are facing this tax are only those who earn less then $15,000 per year for a two-person family.

The legislature has zero credibility when it comes to battling obesity. Just two weeks ago, Arizona's House gave preliminary approval to a law making it illegal for any local government to restrict toy giveaways to promote fast-food products such as McDonald's Happy Meals. What triggered this vital legislation? Efforts in California by Santa Clara County and by San Francisco to battle childhood obesity by making fattening junk food less attractive to kids by ending the free toy-crummy high-calorie food association.

Low-income people eat the most junk food. And the legislature and the Governor in Arizona could not care less. Keep the high-calorie meals coming. There are taxes to be collected.

Look, I want people to be thinner. I am no fan of smoking. But levying a sin tax on the poorest of the poor for behavior that the state does nothing to discourage is both hypocritical and lousy public policy.

If sin taxes are the way to go in balancing the budget, then everyone should be subject to the fines.

With more than 25 percent of Arizonans obese and 16 percent who smoke, there will be plenty of money available. And just to be fair, the governor can add the same tax to water-skiing, jet skiing, horseback riding, mountain biking, owning a swimming pool, paragliding, rock climbing, failing to wear a helmet while riding a motorcycle (Arizona has a very weak law) or choosing to work in roofing, mining or construction — or any other activity that carries a risk. Actually, if the governor really wants to make money, how about a tanning tax for those who bask in the Arizona sun and hike their risk of skin cancer?

The way to get at the costs of health care is to take a long hard look at prices, overuse of services and fraud. But that would be too hard. Picking on the poor is just lazy and mean.

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