by Angela Chagnon
Montpelier – “I’m hoping not to hear questions about ‘nanny states,'” said Rep. George Till (D-Jericho), who is sponsoring a bill that proposes a $1 tax hike to bring the total tax per pack of cigarettes to $3.24.
“There’s nothing in here that forbids someone from smoking or outlaws cigarettes… this is about if you choose to smoke, you should shoulder the financial responsibility of that choice.” He ended with, “This is both good public health policy, and it is good tax policy.”
Till made his comments at a press conference held by the Coalition for a Tobacco Free Vermont Tuesday morning to advocate for a $1 or even a $1.25 tax hike on tobacco products.
“The overall price per pack of tobacco would have to be increased by at least 10% to be an effective public health tool,” said Tina Zuk, spokeswoman for the Coalition. The revenue from the tax is put into healthcare programs. Zuk said that Governor Shumlin has proposed more than $2.1 million in cuts to the tobacco program.
The coalition, whose membership of 46 organizations includes the Vermont Public Interest Research Group (VPIRG) and Vermont National Education Association (VT-NEA), claims that the tax hike is needed to prevent youth addiction and to lower healthcare costs.
Rebecca Ryan, Director of Health Promotion and Public Policy at the Lung Association in Vermont, says that according to a Mellman Group poll taken in early January, “Over three quarters (76%) of Vermont voters favor a $1.00 per pack increase (This, perhaps not surprisingly, roughly approximates the 80% of Vermonters who don’t smoke), with the revenue dedicated to fund health care programs.” Four hundred Vermonters took part in the poll.
The Mellman Group poll claims, “While voters favor a tobacco tax increase, they overwhelmingly oppose other means of reducing the deficit.” By “other means”, Mellman Group doesn’t mean ‘all other means’. Here control choices other than the tobacco tax increase in the poll question were: state sales tax, state income tax, reduce funding for education, or reduce funding for health care programs. Or, things that a majority of people pay or benefit from.
Another way to read this poll is Vermont voters want somebody else to pay for their government services.
Among the papers distributed by the coalition was a packet entitled “Briefing Book”, which contained the topics covered in the press conference along with the Mellman Group poll questions and data. “[E]very single state that has increased its cigarette taxes has received more revenue than it would have collected absent a rate increase – despite the loss of sales from related smoking declines and despite any increases in cigarette smuggling or other tax evasion,” the packet stated. The paper goes on to say that the new tax “will generate an additional $10.2 million in new state revenue.”
Last week, Rep. Cynthia Browning (D-Arlington), advised against using the tax code to control behavior in her testimony to the House Ways and Means Committee.
When asked if the tax would target lower income people, the demographic containing the highest percentage of smokers, Cecile Johnston, Board President of the Vermont Low Income Advocacy Council, replied, “I don’t think it does unfairly target low-income people. I think cigarette manufacturers [and] tobacco companies unfairly target low-income people.”
The Briefing Book packet says of the low-income question, “Tobacco taxes are not regressive, tobacco-related disease is regressive and low-income people have the most to gain from quitting.”
In other words: Yes, this tax is directed at low-income people. But it’s for their own good, and therefore makes it socially acceptable.