Tobacco taxes

"They always go after cigarettes, it's easy money," says Smoke Shop Manager George Wazwaz. "It's not fair. Any time they are in a jam, they go after tobacco. Why don't they go after alcohol or food?"

ST. PAUL β€” A Rochester lawmaker is helping lead the charge at the Capitol to raise taxes on cigarettes and go after so-called "little cigars."

Assistant Senate Minority Leader Carla Nelson introduced two tobacco-related bills on Monday. One would boost taxes on cigarettes by $1.29 a pack so they are taxed at the same rate as they are in Wisconsin. The additional money raised would be used to reduce the statewide business property tax.

The other bill seeks to get rid of a tax loophole so little cigars would be taxed as cigarettes. These products, which come in candy and fruit flavors, are taxed at a much lower rate than cigarettes because they have some tobacco in their wrapping paper. As a result, a pack of little cigars costs $1.50 versus more than $5 for a pack of cigarettes.

"Our bill simply says this is a cigarette, and the research shows that, if someone does not pick up smoking before the age of 20, they are much less likely to be addicted for life," the Republican said.

Legislative outlook

Health advocates are optimistic some form of tobacco tax increase will win legislative support this year. DFL Gov. Mark Dayton's budget calls for raising cigarette taxes by 94 cents a pack to raise an estimated $370 million in the next two-year budget cycle for the state. Meanwhile, the House Taxes Committee Chairwoman Ann Lencewski, DFL-Bloomington, has introduced a bill to bump cigarette taxes to $1.60 a pack and extend those taxes to other tobacco products such as chewing tobacco and snuff.

"I think a lot of people are thinking this is the year it is likely to happen," said Robert Moffitt, spokesman for the American Lung Association of the Upper Midwest.

His organization backs the efforts as a way to discourage youth smoking. Research shows that, for every 10 percent increase on a pack of cigarettes, there is a 6 percent decrease in youth smoking, Moffitt said.

But not everyone is on board with the idea of raising cigarette taxes.

"The cigarette tax is one of the most regressive taxes. It hurts the poorest of the poor," said Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston.

Davids said he plans to oppose all tax increases this session because the lawmakers should be focused on cutting state spending β€” not looking for new sources of revenue. Other critics charge any tax increases on cigarettes will just lead people to smuggle cheaper cigarettes into the state.

Revisiting bills

Nelson introduced both of these bills last session, but they failed to advance in the GOP-led Legislature. Her little cigars bill is scheduled for a hearing on Wednesday before the Senate Taxes Committee. DFL Sen. Kari Dziedzic, of Minneapolis, is sponsoring a similar bill.

The measure also has the backing of a group called "Raise It for Health," comprised of more than 30 health and nonprofit organizations β€” including Mayo Clinic.

So what does Nelson say to those who criticize cigarette taxes for being regressive? It's important to remember that cancer is also regressive.

"I have friends who smoke, and I am telling you there is not a one of them that says, 'I'm glad I am a smoker,'" she said. "There's nobody who is glad they have been ensnared by these things."

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