Tobacco tax on legislative agenda

A New England anti-smoking organization has proposed new legislation designed to keep smokers from lighting up by hitting them where it hurts: their wallets.

Officials of Health Now! Massachusetts, part of the six-state Alliance for a Healthy New England, announced yesterday at Massachusetts General Hospital its intentions to file legislation seeking a 50-cent tax on tobacco products sold in the state.

Extra revenue from the tax will go toward expanding access to health care, especially for children; providing subsidized pharmaceuticals for seniors; and funding programs for uninsured wageworkers.

Lori Fresina, director of The Smoke-Free New England Initiative for the American Cancer Society, is confident that state legislators will support the proposed bill.

Fresina explained that the success of the plan was based on geography. In February, New York state adopted a $1.11 tax on cigarette packs and Canadian prices are traditionally higher than those in the United States. Therefore, New Englanders would not have the option of traveling to avoid the tax, she said.

“Our biggest barrier was the possible loss of business to border states,” she said. “But when New York raised the tax there, New England was sealed off. The real beauty is that we can not only lower smoking rates and increase health access across New England, but we can totally remove political liability for state legislatures to raise taxes.”

The announcement was complemented by the release of a report prepared by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, which said state residents would support a tobacco tax increase. Of those polled, 88 percent said they would vote for a legislator who favored a 50-cent tax increase.

About 88 percent of the voters polled also said they would favor using cigarette tax revenues for youth anti-tobacco programs. Approximately 80 percent supported using the revenue to provide health care for the uninsured and prescription drugs for seniors.

The tobacco industry, however, is expected to fight the legislation. Philip-Morris issued a statement on Tuesday calling the plan unfair to poor smokers who would not be able afford tobacco products. A tax increase during unprecedented budget surpluses is irresponsible, the company said.

Fresina dismissed the argument.

“If they were so concerned with consumers’ pocketbooks, they would not have raised the price of cigarettes 23 times over the past 10 years,” she said. “In Connecticut and Western Massachusetts, the Connecticut River Valley region, Phillip-Morris and other firms have an undeniably strong presence in the State House. But public opinion has turned against them so that it is difficult for lawmakers to turn the other way.

“We are telling lawmakers, if you work with us, you can help prevent the number one cancer killer.”

Gov. William Weld vetoed a 25-cent tax increase in 1996 after it passed the

House of Representatives. The House later overturned the veto. Fresina said Gov. Paul Cellucci might take a similar course of action.

“This is the only unregulated business. Red M ‘ M’s were taken off shelves when they posed a threat. Tylenol was taken out and the auto industry is even regulated. The tobacco interests have been able to carve themselves a very protected place in regards to their relationship in Congress, but it won’t last forever,” she said.

When asked about recent tobacco industry media campaigns to curb youth smoking, Fresina questioned the industry’s sincerity.

“If they are serious about not letting youngsters smoke, they should join

with us. Studies show raising prices is the single most effective way to

reduce youth smoking rates,” she said.

The Alliance for a Healthy New England is composed of three core organizations: Community Catalyst, a national health access advocacy group, the New England Council of State Medical Societies and the American Cancer Society.

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