Since 2003, the percentage of adult smokers in Wisconsin has reduced from 22% to 20.6%. From 2005 to 2010, the net cigarette taxes collected more than doubled from $289 million to $595 million, while the total number of cigarette packs sold dropped from 414 million to 298 million. According to a 2011 report by the University of Wisconsin Comprehensive Cancer Control Program, no other source of state revenue has increased at that rate. "Revenue from tobacco (exclusive of revenue from tobacco bonds) is the fourth largest source of state revenue after sales, income and corporate taxes."
It is clear that to maintain the tax revenue, the state must either increase the taxes on the ever-dwindling population of smokers buying taxed cigarettes or find other sources of revenue. The 2011 UW report showed that taxes on non-cigarette tobacco products have increased by over 350% since 2005. Surveys show that smoke-free tobacco use has increased to 4% in Wisconsin. Clearly, many smokers have turned not only to the cheaper, Native American cigarette stores but also to less expensive, less harmful smoke-free tobacco products. Obviously, the state would want even more from those smoke-free users to compensate for the lost cigarette taxes.
Health organizations and legislators usually justify increasing tobacco taxes by claiming the increased costs reduce smoking rates, thereby improving public health and decreasing health insurance and medical care costs. But the UW report mentioned earlier found that while "increasing taxes may effectively reduce cigarette consumption, it did not cause a significant decline in adult smoking prevalence. The increase in taxes may have contributed to the modest decline in youth smoking, which is consistent with other studies showing that youth are more sensitive to price changes than adults." (Translation: Nearly the same percentage of people are still smoking, they just aren't smoking as many cigarettes as they did before and the decline in youth smoking hasn't exactly been exceptional, either.)
With that in mind, consider a new bill soon to be introduced by Wisconsin Representative Garey Bies (R-Sister Bay).
The bill, titled the "Backpack Tobacco Act," claims to only be thinking of "saving the children" when proposing to increase the taxes on non-cigarette tobacco products to be as high as current cigarette taxes. The health organizations supporting this Act claim it is to combat the increased use of "little cigars" and smoke-free tobacco products that come in "candy flavors." (Note that the only people calling these "candy" flavors and bringing them to the attention of youth are the health groups themselves.) They claim that increasing the tax on these products will have a significant impact on reducing youth smoking rates.
Let me first say that I strongly support prohibiting the sale of tobacco and nicotine products to minors. However, the proponents of the bill make several claims designed to convince and/or scare people into increasing taxes (mainly affecting the adult consumers of these products) that just don't stand up to the light.
Some of the "facts" stated in a joint press release issued by the bill's author and the American Lung Association, American Heart Association, American Cancer Society, Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids and Health First Wisconsin were:
"According to a poll released September 16th, 67% of Wisconsin voters say they support taxing all tobacco products like cigarettes; support that crosses all demographics and party lines."
What they don't tell you is that out of 4.4 million adult voters in Wisconsin, this poll only spoke to 600 voters. With only 0.0015% of the adult population polled, is that truly representative of 67% of the entire state? Do the 600 people polled know the truth about smoke-free tobacco products - like how snus is proven to not increase the risks of any of the diseases associated with smoking? Or how switching to a smoke-free product can significantly reduce a smoker's health risks - in most cases to that of a non-smoker?
Knowing the facts can change opinion and unfortunately, most people don't know the truth about smoke-free tobacco use compared to smoking.
"Wisconsin’s tobacco laws are full of loopholes that are being exploited to lure kids with new, cheap and addictive products....These products are often sold individually on easy-to-access displays well within kids’ reach and budget."
It has been illegal in Wisconsin to sell tobacco to minors for decades and April 2012 saw the passage of a law banning the sale of all nicotine products to minors, as well. Just because a tobacco product is "within kids' reach and budget" doesn't mean "kids" are being sold the products. Beer and wine are often sold in convenience store coolers near soda, well within reach of minors, but rather than make beer and wine more expensive to adult consumers (just to reduce incentive for minors buying them,) stores are held accountable for making illegal sales. The same holds true for any tobacco product.
Ultimately, no matter how much it costs or where it is placed in the store, the last defense between a minor purchasing tobacco products or not depends upon enforcement of existing laws prohibiting sales to minors. Wisconsin should be enforcing existing laws regarding these products, not penalizing the adult consumers for the failure of retailers to follow the law.
The best way to illustrate this doozy of a deception is a chart, so I created one for you using the same CDC statistics used for the claim made above. To justify the need for this tax increase, they want the public to only see that little cigar use has exceeded cigarette use for the first time, so they show you this much of the picture:
|Source: CDC Wisconsin Youth Survey Data (2001, 2005, 2011)|
Again, it's what they don't tell you that changes how most people would view this little cigar "crisis."
Refer back to the paragraph above regarding the difference between consumption and prevalence. As you can clearly see on the full chart, while sales of little cigars (ie. consumption) may have increased nationwide over the last decade, cigar, cigarello and little cigar use (ie. prevalence) in Wisconsin has actually declined from 17.3% in 2001 to 14.8% in 2011. High school students smoking cigarettes has also declined from a whopping 32.6% a decade earlier to less than half that (14.6%) in 2011. Over all categories, high school student tobacco use has steadily declined in the past decade.
While proponents of this bill would have people believe that little cigar use is increasing so much that it is exceeding cigarette use, looking at the actual data for the past decade shows us what really happened is the decline in cigarette use has actually outpaced the decline in cigar use. Remember, too, that there isn't any evidence that the cigar smokers and cigarette smokers are different or separate groups. In all likelihood, because adding the cigar and cigarette smokers together actually exceeds the total for overall tobacco use, most of the cigar smokers are also in the cigarette smokers group and/or vise versa.
As mentioned earlier, the CDC says only 4% of Wisconsin adults use a smoke-free product. The decline in the smoking rate in Wisconsin has effectively stalled, so health organizations need to change their hopeless tactics of trying to get those holdouts to become 100% abstinent and should instead urge them to switch to far less risky alternatives. Especially since 100% abstinence is not required to significantly reduce or eliminate smoking-related disease and death. Therefore, products such as snus (and possibly electronic cigarettes), which this bill would like to see cost as much as cigarettes, should instead be made more affordable than cigarettes. If safer alternatives cost the same as smoking, there is little incentive to change products.
But let's not forget the accusation that those "candy flavors" are only sold to attract kids.
If flavored tobacco products are not intended for adult tobacco users (because adult consumers "obviously" have no interest in pleasant or sweet flavors) then why do pharmaceutical companies advertise these to adult smokers?
The American Lung Association, American Heart Association, American Cancer Society, Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids and Health First Wisconsin are calling for Wisconsin residents to contact their representatives and urge them sign on as co-sponsors to this bill. These groups are even providing easy-to-use email forms for contacting legislators. I ask my Wisconsin readers, smoke-free tobacco and e-cigarette users alike, to contact their state representatives and urge them to NOT support this bill. As soon as we get a copy of the actual bill text, CASAA will also issue a Call to Action. In the meantime, you can use this link to find out who your state Representatives and Senators are: http://legis.wisconsin.gov/pages/waml.aspx
Send them an email or call them and ask them to not co-sponsor Representative Bies' bill. Tell them your story of how using a smoke-free product has changed your life and the financial impact increased taxes would have on your ability to remain smoke-free. Tell them how you would have been less likely to switch if the smoke-free products had been just as expensive as cigarettes. Remind them that laws should be evidence-based and not based on scaremongering. "Sin taxes" on cigarettes are based on evidence of increased health risks that are simply not equaled by smoke-free and e-cigarette use. (Note: Rep. Bies does not mention e-cigarettes in his press release, so we don't know if they are named in the actual bill's language, but possible FDA regulation of e-cigarettes as "tobacco products" could easily move e-cigarettes under the umbrella of the "Backpack Tobacco Act" in the future.*)
And if you will, please share this important information on your social networks. There is an icon bar below to share this post on your Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and blog. If we do not get the word out, this law will pass and the costs of all low-risk, smoke-free products (including e-cigarettes) are in danger of increasing significantly!
*UPDATED: I called Rep. Bies' office and got a copy of the bill text. You can read the bill here: Backpack Tobacco Act
While the bill doesn't specifically name or define electronic cigarettes, the bill does significantly increase taxes on low-risk products such as Swedish snus, tobacco lozenges, strips and sticks - including internet sales. The new definition of "Tobacco Products" is a possible concern for electronic cigarettes, as it could be argued or interpreted that e-cigarettes fit the definition of "any other product containing, or made or derived from, tobacco that is intended for human consumption, regardless of whether it is chewed, smoked, absorbed, dissolved, inhaled, snorted, sniffed, or ingested by other means." CASAA will review the bill thoroughly, to be sure of the true ramifications and will issue the appropriate Call to Action.