Teen use of smokeless tobacco leads to call for tax increase
when state lawmakers increased the tax on cigarettes two years ago by $1 per pack, it was a good move, but they didn’t finish the job, say anti-tobacco activists and their legislative allies.
Unlike the three previous tax increases on cigarettes, the 2008 measure didn’t include similar-size increases on chewing tobacco, other smokeless tobacco products, or packets of loose-leaf “roll-your-own” tobacco. As a result, say anti-tobacco activists, the state is leaving more than $10 million in easy tax money on the table and missing an opportunity to drive down tobacco use, particularly among young people whose habits are sensitive to even small price increases.
State Rep. Jonathan Hecht is pushing legislation that would address what he and public health advocates call an oversight in the 2008 tax hike. A bill Hecht filed last year would raise the tax on other tobacco products to a level that is comparable to the cigarette tax. Hecht’s approach would increase taxes on these products so they equal 110 percent of their wholesale cost, which is what the current state tax of $2.51 on a pack of cigarettes corresponds to. Hecht calculates that the increase would yield $10.5 million in new tax revenue per year, a portion of which he’d like to see dedicated to tobacco control programs.
“This is the right thing to do to keep kids from being addicted, and to create a revenue stream to help programs for those who want to break their addiction,” says Hecht, a Watertown Democrat.
“They look like Tic Tacs,” says Russet Morrow Breslau, executive director of Tobacco Free Mass, a coalition of anti-tobacco organizations. “So if you’re a kid sitting in geometry class, you could be sucking on these lozenges or sucking on these tea bags and you could get hooked.”
The use of smokeless tobacco among US 10th- and 12th-graders increased from 2006 to 2009, according a December report from Monitoring the Future, an ongoing survey of habits and attitudes of secondary school students and young adults, sponsored by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
David Sutton, a spokesman for Altria, the parent company of Phillip Morris and US Smokeless Tobacco, says “underage access to tobacco products is something we’re vehemently opposed to,” and he denies that any marketing is done with underage users in mind. As for the proposed Massachusetts tax increase, he says Altria opposes raising levies on adult consumers and believes that stricter enforcement of laws prohibiting retail sales to minors is the best way to prevent young people from gaining access to the tobacco products.
The bill to increase taxes on non-cigarette tobacco products didn’t make it out of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Revenue last year. Hecht is hoping the bill will gain traction in the new year. “It’s a fix of an omission,” he says.Breslau says there is broad public support for the tax hike. In a March 2009 survey of 502 likely Massachusetts commissioned by Smoke Free Mass, 81 percent supported taxing other tobacco products at the same rate as cigarettes.
But passing any new tax, even on something as socially shunned as tobacco, is never easy, and advocates may find that is especially true heading into an election year.