As two tobacco tax bills languish on Utah’s Capitol Hill, the $4 million fund for advertising and marketing of a smoking cessation program is also being raided.
This combination is especially disturbing to anti-tobacco advocates.
“We knew that every agency was going to have cuts across the board,” said Beverly May, regional advocacy director for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. “But this wasn’t just a cut — it was an elimination.”
May and others lament the siphoning off of the $4 million, which paid for targeted newspaper, radio and TV ads, along with advocacy work in the schools — directing smokers to the state’s quit-line and discouraging youth from picking up the habit.
The double-whammy against anti-smoking efforts means that the tobacco giants can protect their profits and their market, said Michael Siler, of the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network. He added that as smokers die off, a new crop is needed.
“We have $345 million in tobacco-related health care costs in the state a year,” Siler said. “A majority of those costs are paid by the state, by hospital systems from compensated care and by citizens in the form of additional taxes.”
Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. set the bar high before the legislative session, advocating a $3-per-pack tax on cigarettes and removal of the sales tax on food.
While Siler and May focus more on health impacts, lawmakers and tax watchdogs warily eye the state’s bottom line.
Lawmakers have reached consensus to raise the vehicle registration fee $20, for a $50 million budget boost, Senate President Michael Waddoups said.
But tobacco tax fervor has all but fizzled in the halls of power.
“There’s an excellent chance for the cigarette tax,” said Waddoups. Just not this year, he added.
A 50-cent to $1.50 additional tax per pack could serve as a backstop next year if the economy continues to slide, Waddoups added.
The fiscal note on Rep. Paul Ray’s HB219 projects $25.9 million in revenue from the $1.30-per-pack tax in 2010. And yet, with four days left in this year’s session, the bill has yet to land on the House floor for debate.
“It would become the Evanston, Wyoming economic recovery act,” said Royce Van Tassell of Ray’s bill.
Van Tassell, vice president of the Utah Taxpayers Association, envisions smokers banding together to purchase cartons of cigarettes out of state if Utah’s smokes get too pricey.
He also considers it bad policy to impose a hefty tax on a narrow group of people.
Sen. Allen Christensen’s SB114, similar to Ray’s, was defeated last month in committee.
Siler and May suspect more than sheer economics at work, noting the large number of tobacco lobbyists on Capitol Hill. Three lobbyists contacted by The Tribune said their contracts would not allow them to speak to the news media.
“I don’t think it’s a conspiracy on the part of legislators,” Siler said. “But I think its a conspiracy on the part of big tobacco.”
Last fiscal year the state collected $46,410,880 in cigarette taxes
and $7,314,289 in tobacco products tax. Both are in the general fund.