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.

Hecht and anti-tobacco activists are particularly concerned about an explosion of various smokeless tobacco products that they say are being targeted at young people. US Smokeless Tobacco, which sells Copenhagen and Skoal chewing tobacco, and R.J. Reynolds have begun marketing a product known as “snus,” a spit-free form of smokeless tobacco sold in small pouches similar to tea bags, which users tuck under their lip. And last year, R.J. Reynolds began selling Camel Orbs, tablet-sized dissolvable jolts of tobacco.

“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.

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Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

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.