Our Opinion: Tobacco bills are good for public health
We thoroughly back a package of bills in the Oregon Legislature to increase taxes for cigarettes, cigars and e-cigarette, or vaping, products.
First, to the issue of cigarettes: Tobacco products, when used as intended by their manufacturers, can lead to serious diseases and death. This makes tobacco products unique. Normally, you have to abuse a product to make it deadly. Not tobacco. The disease and potential for death are a feature, not a bug.
It also is true that a tax on cigarettes is unusual — compared to other taxes — in that the raising of money is only the secondary purpose. The primary purpose is to make cigarettes expensive enough that people stop buying them. Especially teenagers, who tend to be more price-sensitive than adults.
Almost nobody gets addicted to cigarettes in their 30s or later. If you become addicted, you do so as a teenager. If a higher price tag means fewer 13-, 15- or 17-year-olds will take up the habit, then we're all for it.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, tobacco remains the leading preventable cause of death in the United States and around the world. Tobacco use is a major factor in four out of the five leading causes of death: heart disease, cancer, lung disease and stroke. It causes about a third of heart disease and cancer, and most cases of emphysema.
We also reject the argument that a tax on cigarettes is regressive, and that it hits low-income Oregonians harder than rich Oregonians. That might well be true. But the costs of heart disease, lung disease, cancer, stroke and emphysema hit low-income people harder than rich people, too. Improving the health of low-income Oregonians can't possibly be considered a regressive idea.
Gov. Kate Brown has proposed $2-per-pack tax increase.
Currently, Oregon's state tax on cigarettes is $1.33 per pack.
State and federal taxes account for 39% of the total cigarette pack price, based on the state average retail price. The state average retail price for a pack of cigarettes in Oregon currently is $6. This includes $1.33 in Oregon state tax and $1.01 in federal tax.
Other proposals before the lawmakers would remove the 50-cent tax cap on cigars and impose a 95% wholesale tax on electronic cigarettes.
This last bit is a proposal from the Oregon Health Authorities. It would create a tax on "inhalant delivery systems," which include e-cigarettes, at a rate of 65% of the wholesale price. Currently, Oregon does not tax these products.
Cigars now are taxed at 65% of the wholesale price, but the tax is capped at 50 cents. OHA's proposal would remove the tax cap on cigars.
If tobacco is the leading cause of preventable death, vaping products are working hard to earn that distinction as well. Vaping has been called an epidemic by public health officials throughout the nation.
Testifying earlier this month before the Legislature, three Oregon high school students, including Tess Wright of Beaverton High School, said "vaping" has become a problem in classrooms everywhere. One product, Juul, has interrupted their education, they said, because students can vape in class, in the bathroom or anywhere else, thanks to the product being so discrete. Juul devices are small, can look like flash drives, and emit little or no visible vapor.
According to the nonprofit Truth Initiative, Juul sales increased 641 percent from 2016 to 2017.
A tax policy analyst for Juul Labs told legislators that the company's goal is to rid the world of cigarettes. However, in December, Altria, one of the largest cigarette makers in the world, announced a $13 billion investment in Juul.
We also dismiss the argument that raising cigarette taxes will make smokers cross the border for cheaper purchases. Jon Hart, an economist for the Oregon Department of Revenue, told lawmakers that Washingtonians buy a significant amount of cigarettes in Oregon and smuggle it back north because Oregon's taxes are lower. The proposed tax increase would put Oregon closer to the taxing level of Washington and California. Idaho still would be significantly lower, Hart said, but the eastern part of the state is so sparsely populated that he doesn't believe a significant number of Oregonians would drive east to save a couple dollars per pack.
At the end of the day, we could quibble with the cigar tax, possibly. But there's so much public health good in this package of bills, we back their passage in this year's legislative session.
We praise Gov. Brown for taking the leadership on this issue, and we urge are area lawmakers to back the tobacco-related bills.
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