At the same time, tobacco proponents want to make it easier to get cigarettes by expanding the definition of a smoke shop
February 8, 2011--Anti-tobacco advocates have an ambitious agenda, and are backing a bevy of bills slated to appear before the Oregon Legislature in the coming weeks. But to succeed, they’ll have to overcome public perception, healthcare priority shifts and an extremely well-funded opposition.
Raising the state’s tobacco tax is the highest-profile priority for anti-tobacco stakeholders and lawmakers, and three separate bills have been introduced. House Bill 2110 calls for a $1 increase; House Bill 2231, sponsored by Rep. Mitch Greenlick (D-Portland), proposes a $1.25 increase, while House Bill 2355, backed by Rep. Phil Barnhart (D-Lane County and Linn Counties, House Revenue Committee Co-Chair), calls for a $2.42 tax hike.
Money raised from the taxes, which by some projections would generate $245 million in additional revenue over the next two years, would fund the state’s Tobacco Use Reduction Account, which offers community-based prevention and cessation programs, and also distribute money to the Oregon Health Plan and the Department of Transportation’s Elderly and Disabled Special Transportation Fund.
It’s been a long time since the concept of a tobacco tax increase was popular; it hasn’t happened in nearly 10 years. In 2003, Oregonians actually voted to decrease the tax by 10 cents to its current level of $1.18 per pack, well below the national average of $1.45 per pack.
But according to Brett Hamilton, executive director of the nonprofit Tobacco-Free Coalition of Oregon, there was a time “when Oregon was a leader in the tobacco-free movement.”
In 1996, voters passed Ballot Measure 44, which increased the cigarette tax by 30 cents a pack; eight years later, Measure 20 introduced an additional 60-cent-per-pack tax, making Oregon’s then-$1.28-per-pack levy the sixth-highest in the nation. Now, the state’s tax ranks 28th, while neighboring Washington ranks third and raised its tax by a dollar last year, to $3.025 per pack.
Why the loss of love for taxing tobacco, especially in a revenue-strapped state? Hamilton says it’s a combination of powerful lobbying by the tobacco industry, which spent $12 million in 2007 alone to kill tobacco tax legislation, and a reprioritizing of national healthcare “emergencies.”
“Getting funding for tobacco-related programs has become quite difficult,” said Hamilton in an interview at the state Capitol. In addition to grants, tobacco taxes often fund anti-smoking and tobacco cessation programs to promote public health, prevent medical expenses and help the addicted kick the habit.
“Now, those with power – white, middle-class, non-disenfranchised people (hipsters excepted) – really don’t smoke anymore,” Hamilton said. “It’s an out of sight, out of mind situation,” despite the fact that smoking rates among Oregon’s low-income, African American and Native American populations are alarmingly high.
Obesity has taken the place of smoking-related diseases as America’s health epidemic du jour, and “tobacco programs have lost tons of money because of this shift,” said Hamilton. For him, a new tobacco tax isn’t just about making cigarettes more expensive to deter consumption; it’s about funding programs that will make Oregon tobacco-free for good.
Data obtained from the Northwest Health Foundation show that cigarette purchases declined every year after Oregon’s Tobacco Education and Prevention Program was created with tobacco tax revenue in 1996. When the program’s funds were cut by 60% in 2003 – the year voters approved a tax decrease – tobacco sales declined more slowly, then leveled off and even increased slightly in subsequent years.
In 2007, funding for the program was restored to voter-approved levels, and tobacco sales have declined every year since, implying that smoking rates have too. Overall, tobacco smoking has decreased by 26% among adults and nearly 50% among youth under 18 since 1996. This proves, said David Rebanal, the Foundation’s program officer, that “a comprehensive, public health prevention and cessation effort is an effective way to curb smoking rates.”
Yet a recent study by the American Lung Association gave Oregon low marks on its tobacco tax and cessation programs, finding that investment in both was far below levels recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Additionally, the state’s Tobacco Prevention and Education Program reported last month that 514,000 adult Oregonians – nearly 17% of the population – smoke, while the under-18 crowd has some 38,000 smokers in its ranks, nearly one in 10 Oregon youth.
A poll commissioned last year by the Foundation and developed with support from the Oregon Medical Association asked 600 randomly selected people whether they would support a cigarette tax increase. An overwhelming majority – 71% – said yes, with 47% saying they “strongly” supported it. “This idea is well-supported by the public,” said Rebanal, “and I don’t think many people realize that.”
Changing Smoke Shop Definition
While advocates attempt to increase the tobacco tax, they’re feeling nervous about legislation that would modify the definition of "smoke shop" to include businesses that are attached to other businesses or residential property (House Bill 2601).
“With this bill, a smoke shop could be next to houses or in strip malls,” said Hamilton. “It would undo a lot of progress we’ve made with the Clean Indoor Air Act to protect people from secondhand smoke.” It would also make tobacco products easier to access, posing both a temptation and a serious health risk to Oregon’s youth.
No matter what this year’s legislative session yields, Hamilton plans to redouble his efforts on anti-tobacco outreach to the state’s most vulnerable populations.
“I don’t think the long-term solution is in the bills,” said Hamilton. “It’s in reaching out to communities, doing grassroots work, and building local leaders who will work to reduce tobacco use.”
TO LEARN MORE:
Text for 2011 Legislature tobacco tax bills:
American Lung Association’s State of Tobacco Control grade sheet for Oregon:
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