Cigarette Tax Advocates Face Uphill Battle

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(Host) A plan to raise Vermont’s cigarette tax by a dollar a pack is running into some strong resistance at the Statehouse.

Advocates argue the tax is needed to properly fund quit smoking programs. But Governor Peter Shumlin says the plan will cost the state a lot of money.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports:

(Kinzel) A coalition of 45 health and consumer groups is backing the cigarette tax increase. They say the tax hike is needed to restore several million dollars to smoking prevention programs and to discourage young people from buying cigarettes. Under the plan, Vermont’s cigarette tax would rise to $3.24 a pack.

Nicole Lucas of the American Heart Association says the tax would raise an additional $10 million:

(Lucas) "In the larger context of health care reform in which we are supposed to be focused on prevention and lowering health care costs, cutting services that are proven to reduce tobacco use and not instilling a tax hike which we know will decrease smoking is counter intuitive and short sighted."

(Kinzel) Jericho Rep. George Till is the lead sponsor of the bill. He says he doesn’t view the cigarette tax as a "sin tax" but as a "personal responsibility" tax.

(Till) "Who should bear the burden of the responsibility? Who should bear that financial burden – should it be the person making the bad choice or should it be the rest of society? You’ve heard the numbers:$ 233 million a year in this state is spent on medical care for smoking."

(Kinzel) Governor Shumlin opposes the tax increase. He says Vermont is getting more money than it expected from the tax this year because neighboring states have increased their tax rates:

(Shumlin) "Let’s not pass a bill that creates more harm than good. And the fact of the matter is right now we have $27 million of unanticipated revenues that’s helping to solve our budget problem – $5 million of that is from unanticipated receipts in tobacco taxes, because right now Vermont is more competitive with our neighbors than we were before so we’re selling more product than we were.  

(Kinzel) And Shumlin says the state’s smoking prevention programs can still be effective with the cuts that he’s proposed.

(Shumlin) "We have to remember that I’m dealing with a $176 million deficit. We’re all going to feel some pain and there’s a lot of money that we’re spending on smoking cessation. We think a small cut there won’t unduly undermine our efforts to make Vermont a healthier place."

(Kinzel) The measure will now be reviewed by several different committees in the House.

For VPR News, I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.

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