The Post's arguments in favor of a 55-cent per pack increase in the federal tobacco tax ["Back to a Tobacco Tax," editorial, Sept. 20] do not withstand scrutiny.

The premise that smokers impose a net cost on society--and should therefore pay even higher taxes--is simply not true. The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service has concluded that "all in all, smoking has apparently brought financial gain to both the federal and state governments." And the respected New England Journal of Medicine determined that "smoking cessation would lead to increased health care costs."

Your editorial claims that price hikes would discourage youth smoking. Yet countries in Europe--where cigarettes cost twice as much as they do in the United States--have significantly higher smoking rates. But the most contorted argument in the piece is that the poor would benefit from revenues raised by yet another tobacco tax hike. Studies show the overwhelming burden of the tobacco tax is already borne by those who can least afford it.

Unfortunately, as President Clinton's support of using a regressive tobacco tax to plug holes in the budget demonstrates, the levy is really designed to raise money for big government rather than combat problems of underage smoking. For example, National Taxpayers Union research shows that supporters of the failed McCain tobacco-tax bill had legislative agendas in the 105th Congress to increase spending by $22.1 billion annually, while opponents cosponsored bills to cut the federal government by $4.1 billion.

It is hypocritical for members of Congress to punish addiction to tobacco when they are addicted to the revenue tobacco produces.

MARK SCHMIDT

Alexandria

The writer is director of programs for the National Taxpayers Union.