BOSTON (State House News Service) - Anti-smoking advocates girding for increased taxes on tobacco products are hoping to tack their proposals onto major health care legislation expected to arise this spring.
In doing so, they’ve opted against pushing for taxes on cigarettes and other tobacco products in a more traditional venue: the state budget.
“That was kind of strategic,” said Stephen Shestakofsky, executive director of Tobacco Free Massachusetts. “We’ve got other opportunities during the session, and the [legislative] leadership was totally adamant about no taxes that we figured this is not the place to take that fight.”
House Speaker Robert DeLeo has urged colleagues to reject tax increases or cuts in the House budget slated for debate next week, and it appears rank-and-file members listened. House members filed few amendments to raise revenue, and Republicans have filed just a handful of amendments to reduce broad-based taxes. The House budget committee, overseen by Rep. Brian Dempsey (D-Haverhill), issued a budget plan last week that includes no major tax increases or cuts.
The decision by members to forgo pushing for higher tobacco taxes in the budget – an approach endorsed by the Massachusetts Public Health Association as well – all but dooms Gov. Deval Patrick’s proposal to help balance the budget with a 50-cent increase in the state’s per-pack cigarette tax and to expand the tax to cover untraditional tobacco products, like smokeless tobacco and flavored cigars.
Lawmakers and the governor last embraced a cigarette tax hike in 2008, when they raised the levy to $2.51 per pack from $1.51. Anti-smoking groups say that younger smokers have since turned to alternative tobacco products to avoid the tax.
Rep. Jonathan Hecht (D-Watertown), who has backed cigarette taxes during budget deliberations in previous years but opted against proposing one this year, did not respond to repeated requests for comment. An aide to John Auerbach, the state commissioner of public health, said the commissioner was unavailable for comment.
Shestakofsky said the decision to forgo a cigarette tax hike push in this year’s budget debate would permit backers to focus on including the measure when the House and Senate consider a major health care system overhaul later this year. The cigarette tax increase, as well as the expansion of the tax to other products, would dovetail with the health care legislation’s goal of cutting costs, according to advocates.
Shestakofsky said anti-smoking interests would prioritize an expansion of the cigarette tax to other tobacco products over a general increase in the cigarette tax. He and other supporters point to recent reports suggesting that teens’ use of non-traditional tobacco products, such as flavored cigars or dissolvable chewing tobacco, has outpaced their use of cigarettes, in part because the other products aren’t taxed the same way.
“We think it makes a lot of sense,” he said. “Ten percent of all the health care costs in Massachusetts are really derived from tobacco-related illnesses.”
Rep. George Peterson (R-Grafton), who has long criticized efforts to raise the cigarette tax, attributed the decision to forgo an effort in this year’s budget to election-year politics.
“There’s no sense. Leadership has, in essence, said there will be no tax hikes or revenue increases or fees. So why put a spotlight on oneself in an election year,” he said. “We actually had 22 new Republicans elected [in 2010]. Some people are starting to pay attention.”
Peterson filed what he described as a “tongue-in-cheek” amendment to ban tobacco products in Massachusetts, an effort he says is meant to lampoon Democrats who support raising cigarette taxes to curb smoking. Because no members offered cigarette tax increases, Peterson said he is likely to withdraw his proposal.
Other critics of higher tobacco taxes, particularly lawmakers that live along the Massachusetts border with New Hampshire or Rhode Island, say an increase would put Massachusetts at a competitive disadvantage with lower-tax states.
The governor’s proposal also drew the ire of Grover Norquist, a conservative anti-tax activist. Norquist argued that taxing untraditional tobacco products at the same rate as cigarettes would give a false impression that they’re equally dangerous.
“Nicotine is addictive but it poses no serious health risks. Thus, the use of smokeless tobacco is proven to be a safer alternative to smoking,” he wrote in a letter to lawmakers in February. “Smokeless tobacco has similar nicotine levels as cigarettes but is 98 percent safer - smokeless tobacco poses no risk for emphysema, lung cancer or heart disease. Though there is still a risk for mouth cancer, it is significantly lower than smoking.”
But anti-smoking advocates described significant public health benefits that could be derived from an increase in the cigarette tax, contending that health care costs related to smoking cost consumers $3.54 billion a year,