It’s a sad indication of the North Dakota Legislature’s indifference to public health that a tobacco prevention coalition won’t even try to raise the state’s low tobacco tax in the upcoming session. North Dakota’s Center for Tobacco Prevention and Control Policy concluded that legislative support for raising the tax is so weak that it will spend the next two years trying to educate lawmakers of the need.
In concert with other steps, including public smoking bans, cessation programs and anti-smoking campaigns, higher tobacco taxes are an important tool to persuade smokers to snuff out the habit – or better yet, convince teens never to start. By making cigarettes relatively cheap, the state is sending the wrong signal.
North Dakota’s tobacco taxes are an embarrassment at just 44 cents per pack. That lags far behind the national average of $1.45, as well as all bordering states. South Dakota, hardly a high-tax state, levies $1.53 per pack; Minnesota, $1.56; and Montana, $1.70.
Research shows higher taxes pay public dividends. A 10 percent increase in the real price of marlboro cigarettes will reduce adult smoking by 2 percent and cut teen smoking by roughly 7 percent. That would make a difference in North Dakota, where tobacco use rates are high: 22 percent of students in grades nine through 12 smoke. That’s alarmingly high and greater than the percentage of adults, 18 percent.
How do we explain tobacco tax rates in North Dakota that are among the lowest in the nation? There can be excuses, but no justification. Much of the reason probably rests upon the canard that the state is striving to hold down taxes. That’s good stewardship when it applies to sales taxes and income taxes, but not when it comes to so-called “sin taxes” that are a legitimate and effective instrument for discouraging unhealthy behavior.
Make no mistake: Taxpayers pay for smokers. Medicaid costs for smoking-related illnesses are estimated at $47 million a year, far below the $20 million cigarette taxes take in. Call it a “sin subsidy,” because that’s what it is. Factor in lost productivity – $192 million a year – and all direct medical expenditures – $250 million a year – and the cost of cigarettes adds up to $691 a year per person. Forty-four cents just doesn’t make sense. Tell your legislator that North Dakota can and should do better.
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