Opposed at hearing, tobacco tax cut could reach 2016 ballot

Printed from: http://newbostonpost.com/2015/09/30/opposed-at-hearing-tobacco-tax-cut-could-reach-2016-ballot/

STATE HOUSE — Lawmakers heard testimony Tuesday on tobacco tax exemption legislation unlikely to get far in the Legislature though it may appear before voters next year.

A bill (H 3503) filed at the request of Geoffrey Yalenezian would exempt cigarettes, cigars, chewing tobacco and all other tobacco products from the 6.25 percent sales tax.

Yalenzian, of Brennan’s Smoke Shop, has also had language approved for a statewide ballot referendum, meaning it could go before voters and potentially become law if supporters are able to gather the tens of thousands of signatures required, with the first deadline Nov. 18.

Food, clothes and certain health care items are exempt from the sales tax, which is only one of the taxes imposed on tobacco products.

“Higher tobacco costs are proven to bring down the rates of smoking and it’s also much harder for children to access tobacco if the price is higher, so we would never want to see tobacco taxes rolled back,” Casey Harvell of the American Lung Association told the Revenue Committee.

Stephen Helfer, of Cambridge Citizens for Smokers’ Rights, told the News Service the total tax on a pack of cigarettes is $5.62, more than any other product.

“Because smokers are disproportionately poor and disabled, this tax is not only regressive, but seems targeted at vulnerable people who have little political power,” Helfer said. He said, “We are actually paying more than our fair share.”

Tobacco Free Mass. Executive Director Tami Gouveia said exemptions from the sales tax are “meant for things that are actually a public good.”

Gouveia and Harvell also pressed lawmakers to pass a bill (H 2527) that would devote 3 percent of what Harvell said is nearly $1 billion in tobacco-related revenue to tobacco cessation and prevention programs.

According to the Lung Association, funding for anti-tobacco programs fell 5 percent in 2013 even as lawmakers increased tobacco taxes, and while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends Massachusetts pump $90 million into cessation and prevention, the Bay State’s funding level for tobacco programs is only $6.5 million.

Two years ago, lawmakers hiked the tax on a pack of cigarettes by $1 as part of an effort, along with a 3-cent gas tax increase and a short-lived technology tax, to better fund education and transportation.

Helfer said that anti-tobacco advocates portray the products as irresistibly addictive, but then argue higher taxes will persuade smokers to quit.

“When they want to raise our taxes then all of a sudden it becomes not an addiction we were inveigled into by the tobacco companies but a personal choice,” Helfer said.

— Written by Andy Metzger

Copyright State House News Service