Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! Just Not Tobacco

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If the leaders of the Massachusetts legislature taxed tobacco cigarettes the way they are planning to tax marijuana, then the price of cigarettes would drop like a dozen recently-legalized homegrown pot plants tossed from a rooftop garden. That’s because the Bay State power-brokers use their taxing powers against tobacco with the intent of reducing its usage. The draconian approach incentivizes people to either quit smoking or never to start at all. That’s the point of Massachusetts tobacco taxation.

The total tax on cigarettes is quite astonishing. In 2009, the federal government upped its excise tax on cigarettes to a whopping $1.01 per pack. Not to be outdone, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts hiked its excise tax to an eye-popping $3.51 in 2013, effectively doubling the price consumers paid for cigarettes, compared to low-tax states. At that time, our state tax levy was second in the nation. Now we have slipped to fourth behind New York, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. How long before liberal lawmakers start demanding another tax hike, so we can return to the peak of the taxing pyramid?

Taking the time-honored idea of “sin taxes” to its extreme, Massachusetts forces its citizens to pay a sales tax on tobacco, as well. Conveniently upped 25 percent only a couple of years before the tobacco tax increase, the sales tax hike — like the cigarette tax — passed the Democrat-dominated legislature during the Governor Deval Patrick administration. The fact that such sales tax hikes are regressive forms of taxation that fall hardest on working families never seems to bother liberal “advocacy” groups. And taxes on cigarettes fall into the most regressive category, because working folks earning less than $60,000 a year are more than twice as likely to smoke as high income earners. So much for empty Democrat rhetoric about protecting working families from the “one percent.”

Working smokers must pay a $3.51 state excise tax, a $1.01 federal tax, and then state government says:  Supersize me — pay the state’s 6.25 percent sales tax, not just on the retail value of the cigarettes, but also on the heavy taxes previously added to the cigarettes. With all that taxation, the government more than doubles the real cost of a pack of cigarettes.

In Massachusetts, citizen-smokers pay taxes upon taxes upon taxes. 

Compare those taxes to the kid-glove treatment the liberals in the legislature are intent on giving marijuana users. While the price of tobacco cigarettes vaults twice as high due to the tax burden, the Bay State insiders are wrestling with whether to place a favorable 12 percent or a moderate 28 percent levy on smoking dope. And unlike their excessive triple taxation upon tobacco, the legislature wraps the state sales tax into — rather than adding it onto — the marijuana tax rate. And there is no federal tax at all on outlawed marijuana.

Tobacco enthusiasts would jump with delight at any of those deals. But not the pot sympathizers in the legislature. No, they whine about the weight of a 28 percent tax on pot smokers, while never giving a second thought about the discriminatory burdens placed on tobacco smokers. 

But let’s not forget:  State government actually wants to discourage tobacco smoking through a punitive level of taxation. Marijuana smoking? Not so much.

But, the liberals sputter, the voters approved a referendum that legalized recreational marijuana with the minuscule tax. Of course, these are the same big government types who continue to ignore a 2000 referendum that rolled back the income tax back to its historic five percent rate.

Seventeen years ago, Massachusetts citizens favored the income tax rollback with voter approval exceeding 56 percent. Despite this majority, the Democrats in the legislature still refuse to complete that tax rollback. Meanwhile in 2016, a lesser majority of more than 53 percent voted in favor of the marijuana referendum. When it comes to marijuana, these same legislators suddenly discover their obligation to follow the wishes of the voters.  

If the will of the voters means that much, then surely those Democrats will add the income tax rollback to the marijuana bill. But please don’t try to hold in that pot smoke for too long waiting for the legislature to act on income tax relief.

In addition to all its tobacco taxes, the state government assigns bureaucrats to set higher minimum prices for cigarettes, fearing that some enterprising small business person may actually want to use tobacco products as a “loss leader” to attract customers.”No such competition allowed” orders the bureaucracy; better that Massachusetts mom-and-pop shops lose business to New Hampshire, where much lower tobacco taxes and prices attract constant cross-border customers. 

Effective June 1, 2017, the bureaucrats set the “presumptive minimum retail prices” for both packs and cartons of cigarettes. This is Massachusetts, so remember:  Deval Patrick’s 6.25 percent sales tax is levied on top of the minimum price fixing. Not only that, but the under-burdened bureaucracy has plenty of spare time to fix separate prices for larger “chain” stores and for “non-chain” or mom-and-pop retailers. Marlboro men are permitted to buy a pack for $10.22 at non-chains versus $10.07 at chain stores. If you’d “rather fight than switch,” you can shell out $119.44 for a carton of Tareytons at mom-and-pop shops, or pony up $117.69 at the big retailers. At those prices, you might rather switch to New Hampshire stores. As the saying goes, “you’ve come a long way, baby,” so the Massachusetts bureaucracy sets the per-pack price of Virginia Slims at between $10.56 and $10.72. Who says Massachusetts is pro-choice? Not when it comes to tobacco prices and products, that’s for sure.

Should you be feeling a tad regal or just plain Anglophile, you might be tempted to purchase a pack of English Ovals or Benson & Hedges Kings. Those will set you back $12.42 a pack or $124.15 a carton at independent retailers. Can you imagine how our colonial forefathers would have reacted to such British government taxation and price fixing? Why they may even have plotted a Boston Tobacco Party that ignited a revolution against the tyranny of English kings! 

Today, the elite liberal Democrat leaders of the Massachusetts Senate and House have no such outbursts to fear. Secreted off in their air-conditioned chambers, they collude at establishing the tax rate for marijuana. In days of yore, such shenanigans took place in what were popularly referred to as “smoke-filled rooms.” That smoke was presumed to waft from cigars, once a much lower taxed and popular recreational habit associated with political big shots of all stripes. Considering how much less they want to tax marijuana than tobacco, makes you wonder:  What exactly they are smoking these days?


Joseph Tortelli is a freelancer writer. Read Mr. Tortelli’s past articles here.