Montana Voices: Big jump in cigarette tax would serve many good purposes

This year, a staggering 1,600 Montanans will die from tobacco use — the leading cause of preventable death. Montana also faces a staggering $220 million budget shortfall, forcing the state to cut vital health programs and seek ways to raise new revenue.

There’s a proven solution to save money, raise vital revenue and most importantly, save lives. The American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network (ACS CAN), American Heart Association and American Lung Association urge lawmakers to pass a permanent cigarette tax increase of $1.50 a pack this upcoming special session.

A $1.50-a-pack cigarette tax increase is projected to save 3,900 Montanans from premature smoking-related death and reduce youth smoking rates almost 16 percent. It could also help 7,200 current smokers quit. And, it would save Montana money. Smoking alone costs Montana $440 million in annual health care costs. With state budget woes, shouldn’t we permanently try to improve our economy?

We pushed for a $1.50 cigarette tax increase this year. Big Tobacco spent $200,000 killing our efforts because they knew it would hurt their profits. This special session, we again urge lawmakers to side with public health and say no to Big Tobacco’s attempts to lure future tobacco users.

Regular, significant tobacco tax increases are proven to prevent youth from starting and prompt current users to quit. It works only if price increases are significant enough to offset Big Tobacco’s ploys. The temporary 50-cents-a-pack tax that’s currently being considered is grossly inadequate and bad for Montana.

 Here’s why small tobacco tax increases don’t work:♦ Big Tobacco regularly uses coupons and discounts to minimize the “sticker shock” price increase for consumers. In 2015, Big Tobacco spent more than $8.2 billion on cigarette marketing. Nearly 73 percent of that money went to price discounts and coupons intended to reduce cigarette prices.

♦ After a tax increase takes effect, tobacco companies often discount prices 40 to 50 cents. After Louisiana raised its tax by 50 cents a pack, some companies distributed 50-cent coupons, effectively eliminating the tax’s impact and health benefit.

To account for price discounting, we need a $1.50-a-pack increase to ensure a meaningful impact on reducing tobacco use and improving public health. This tax increase must be permanent and implemented all at once, not phased in over months or years.

To protect our kids, we must significantly increase the price of all tobacco products — something Montana hasn’t done since 2005. Every state that’s significantly increased its tobacco tax has seen tobacco sales decrease, leading to fewer kids starting to smoke and fewer preventable deaths and instances of disease. This revenue must be used to fund programs that improve public health, help people quit and protect kids from tobacco use.

An ACS CAN poll shows increasing tobacco taxes to address revenue shortfall is strongly supported across party lines, with 77 percent of Montana voters favoring a $1.50-a-pack cigarette tax increase with revenue used to fight tobacco use and fund state health programs.

When our legislators meet for the special session, they must find $229 million in revenue and/or cut programs. Our proposed $1.50-a-pack cigarette tax increase will generate roughly $44 million in new annual revenue.

Please pass this permanent tobacco tax to save lives, save money and generate revenue. Don’t let Montana’s fiscal and physical health go up in smoke!

Kristin Page Nei, Montana government relations director, American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network; Amanda Cahill, government relations director, American Heart Association/American Stroke Association; Ronni Flannery, American Lung Association in Montana.