Vermont’s anti-tobacco forces are pressing lawmakers to boost the state’s per-pack tax — now $2.24 — in hopes of offsetting planned budget cuts to anti-tobacco efforts, raising more money for the state and discouraging people from lighting up. A new survey shows strong public support for an 81-cent increase in Vermont’s tax on a pack of cigarettes — a finding the Coalition for a Tobacco-Free Vermont is using to support its drive for the tax change, reported the Burlington Free Press.
The poll showed even stronger support — 88 percent — for raising taxes on other tobacco products such as cigars and chewing tobacco, according to the report.
Representatives of the Coalition for a Tobacco Free Vermont joined Tuesday, February 1st with officials of the American Lung Association, the American Heart Association and the Vermont Low Income Advocacy Council to propose the increase, which they say would raise $10.2 million in new revenue for state government, drive some smokers to quit and save millions in health-care costs. 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.
Gov. Peter Shumlin has proposed a $2.1 million cut in the state’s tobacco control efforts. The anti-tobacco lobby says nearly five times that amount could be raised — and some tobacco-control programs spared — by slapping $1 more onto Vermont’s per-pack tax. (Increase Vermont’s cigarette tax from $2.24 to $3.24.)
The increase would prompt 2,000 smokers to quit and prevent 3,600 children from taking it up, according to the Coalition for a Tobacco Free Vermont. It would raise money for the state, which is facing a budget shortfall of about $176 million for the fiscal year starting July 1, and reduce Medicaid expenditures, said coalition coordinator Tina Zuk of Colchester.
State Rep. George Till, D-Chittenden, a physician who’s among the bill’s sponsors, says using tobacco is the single most preventable cause of death and disease in Vermont.
Cigarettes sell for about $6.50 a pack in Vermont, and about 17 percent of adults smoke.
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. Vermont state government has reaped about $4.9 million more in cigarette-tax revenues in this fiscal year than it forecast, mainly because of price-conscious smokers from neighboring New York who head east to buy for less, Agency of Human Services Secretary Doug Racine said. In New York, the state tax on a pack is more than $4.
Shumlin says the state’s smoking prevention programs can still be effective with the cuts that he’s proposed.
The Vermont Grocers’ Association opposes the increase, which it contends will drive smokers to buy somewhere else, not quit. “No one wants to see increased smoking,” said Jim Harrison, president. “We want to see decreases. However, just changing the tax rate — it has other unintended consequences. We’ve seen it time and time again, especially when small geographic states like Vermont increase the rate. It shifts sales to neighboring states, the Internet, Indian reservations.
Vermont is dealing with a $176 million deficit. The measure will now be reviewed by several different committees in the House.