Taxing Tobacco

I suspect we’ll see this bill again

In response to the article, “How Big Tobacco Stopped a Smoking Tax in ‘Marlboro Country,’” this legislator and member of the House tax committee felt a bit miffed at being excluded from a handshake and messaging from those representing Big Tobacco in Helena. Possibly I was a dead ringer for one whose mind was firmly planted as an opponent of the industry. I had asked the sponsor if she would think it wise if I wrote an amendment in the committee to lower the tax in order to better the chances for passage. In convincing language, the senator explained her rationale for the increase. Apparently, enough studies have taken place pegging the $1.50 increase as a tipping point to significantly lower the percentage of smokers in the state. Secondly, the funding was earmarked to increase the pay of workers providing direct care to the elderly and disabled. With facilities unable to hold on to such staff members, the workers were projected to see a pay increase of $15/hour following several years of collections. Vaping products were also part of the tax increase with the key concern being younger non-smokers, who were picking up the smokeless nicotine habit.

I too was hammered by e-mails mainly from users of vape products. Many said that they would have to go back to smoking if such a tax was implemented. I think the Big Tobacco/vaping industry orientation might have fallen short on logic to some of their strongest adherents.

During testimony, a health care advocate provided a startling statement, “For each pack of smokes sold, there is $19 of associated expenses in lost labor and health costs.” I felt the tax was justifiable as a reasonable reimbursement to non-smokers.

I served on three committees and dealt with many bills. The tobacco/vaping bill was the only “adverse committee report” I experienced. I know many of my Republican colleagues were adamantly opposed to tax hikes of any kind. Generally speaking, the House Tax Committee had honest and respectful dialogue concerning the impact of bills before us. I’ll take their word as to the opposition to the increased tax along with worries over an increased black market of products.

I suspect we’ll see this bill again hopefully as a referendum where voters can make a wiser decision than my committee.

Rep. Dave Fern, Democrat