Friday, September 20, 2013

Wisconsin smokers are quitting. The solution? Tax non-smokers.

In 1999, Wisconsin received $5.9 billion dollars in the national tobacco lawsuit and within 4 years it was all gone. That's because the state, facing the worst fiscal crisis in its history, had sold 25 years of tobacco payments for $1.3 billion to balance a single year's budget.

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.

"In 2011, for the first time, little cigar use exceeded that of traditional cigarettes among Wisconsin high school students. Nationwide, sales of these products have increased 240% in the last decade due almost entirely to tax discrepancies."

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:

Based on this information, cigar use did indeed slightly exceed cigarette use in 2011. Sorry if that graphic is a little blurry, but that is what happens when you crop out a small part of a larger picture - the facts get a little fuzzy. 

Now let's look at the entire chart for that last decade:

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.

What they want you to believe (so you support their new tax) is that high school students are increasingly buying flavored little cigars and smoking more than ever, but the truth is that far fewer students are smoking both cigarettes and little cigars (indeed, tobacco use of all forms) than a decade ago. If this is confusing, believe me when I say that it's intentional on the part of those trying to justify tax increase. This is a classic tactic to "blur the facts" to forward their cause.

"These products, with their candy-like packaging and fruity flavors (wild cherry, grape and chocolate) are able to skirt Wisconsin’s cigarette tax. The products are priced just right for kids on a weekly allowance, earning money from a babysitting job or just scrounging up some spare change.  The clever packaging makes it almost effortless for youth to hide possession of these products from their parents."

Clearly, this is not describing little cigars. Little cigars leave a tell tale odor just as cigarettes do and would not be any easier to "hide." No, what are described here are OTP (other tobacco products.) This would include chewing tobacco, snus and dissolvable products such as tobacco lozenges, strips and sticks (and possibly electronic cigarettes.) Again, putting aside the fact that no matter how cheaply priced they are it is still illegal to sell tobacco products to minors in Wisconsin, just how many students are using these smoke-free products compared to actually smoking? According to the CDC's 2011 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 23.9% of high school students reported using some kind of tobacco product at least once in the past 30 days (but not necessarily "daily") and only around a third of those (8.4%) used smokeless tobacco in the past 30 days. Is smokeless use on the rise because these so-called "candy" flavors are now available? Not at all. The CDC report from a decade earlier shows us that overall tobacco use is down from 39.5% and smokeless use is down from 9.1% in 2001.

On the other hand, availability of pleasant-tasting, low-risk, smokeless tobacco products can be a lifesaver for the 20.9% of adult smokers in Wisconsin. As research has shown, health effects of smoking begin appearing in smokers who are usually over 60 years old and it is the smoke exposure - not nicotine or smoke-free tobacco use - that causes nearly all of those deadly, "tobacco-related" (really SMOKING-related) diseases. Smoke-free products eliminate exposure to smoke.

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?

Don't be fooled. This bill is aimed more at exploiting the growing adult smoke-free tobacco and electronic cigarette markets than at "little cigars" supposedly being used by high school students.

Clearly, the pharmaceutical industry recognized that its expensive, peppery and bitter "original flavor" was not an incentive for smokers to switch to its nicotine products, so it began offering "candy flavors" to adult smokers. And the tactic worked - studies found that better flavors increased frequency of use of the gum. They also found that making the alternative more affordable also increased the likelihood that smokers would switch. So, better taste + more affordable than cigarettes = more incentive to switch to a reduced harm nicotine gum or lozenge.

What this all comes down to is that this bill has more to do with the decline in cigarette sales (due to the combination of people choosing not to smoke at all, smoking less, buying from tax-exempt reservations and switching to lower-risk, less expensive smoke-free alternatives such as smokeless tobacco and electronic cigarettes) severely impacting that $559 million in tax revenues than "saving our children." Clearly, this bill has two major goals: 1) remove the financial incentive for smokers to switch to smoke-free products because switching reduces tax revenue, and 2) exploit non-smokers who are already using a less harmful and more affordable tobacco alternative by making them pay a "sin tax" - regardless of the fact that they are choosing to use a far safer product. The vast majority of people using these alternative tobacco products (and paying taxes on them) are the 9+ MILLION adult tobacco users in Wisconsin, not high school students. This bill is about keeping and increasing tax revenue from adult consumers.

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:

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.


  1. Nice job of debunking that press release. I always read press releases as sales copy, especially coming from a politician's office.

    What always bugs me is the letters to the editor section in newspapers, which -- more often than not -- regurgitate "press release facts" to convince others.

  2. This "little cigar crisis" is probably due to young people buying them so they can remove the tobacco inside and then fill said little cigar with cannabis.

  3. I'd like to know where in Wisconsin you can buy e-cig supplies? I live in Dane county and the only e-cigs I've seen for sale are Njoy's and Blu, and I saw that select video was selling an eGo battery, that's the top of the line around here. There's no vape shops anywhere near me. All of my vape equipment was bought from out of state vendors. So where are the kids buying their e-liquid? Please tell me, I would love a local vendor to buy my supplies and devices from.

    1. Consider joining the Wisconsin Vapers Forum on Facebook:

      They are a great resource, very helpful and there is a list of Wisconsin vendors posted under the Files tab on the group page.

  4. Very nice effort to quit smoking habit.

  5. Kristin i couldn't agree with you more, Good job on decrypting the press release!

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.


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