Maine has a financial crisis, and state officials need to restructure tax and spending priorities to maintain the state’s fiscal health, without dismantling effective public health programs.
Standardizing taxes so that all tobacco products are treated the same as a cigarette is a common-sense approach that prevents the industry’s current manipulation of state laws, while increasing state revenue.
Reacting to stricter regulations on cigarette sales and higher prices, the tobacco industry has created new products that attract children and keep people hooked. Whether it is smokeless products advertised to be used “everywhere” smoking is prohibited or flavored little cigars packaged in brightly colored, crayon-like boxes, these products are attracting a new generation of tobacco users in a significant way. National surveys show youths are big users of these tobacco products and, in Maine, 15 percent of the children smoke cigars, little cigars and cigarillos.
Why are kids flocking to these other tobacco products? Because they are cheap. The average price per pack of cigarettes is $6.24, but you can walk into any smoke shop in the state and walk out with a pack of little cigars — a product nearly identical to cigarettes — for just over a dollar a pack.
Non-cigarette tobacco products are taxed at only a fraction of the rate on cigarettes. Not a logical tax structure, given these products all do the same thing: They keep people addicted to tobacco and place significant burdens on Maine taxpayers and businesses.
Not equalizing the tax on these products costs the state millions in lost revenue every year. Most states have higher tax rates on other tobacco products, and states such as Vermont, which equalize their tobacco taxes, have seen great increases in state revenue and declines in general tobacco use.
Tobacco use costs Maine in many ways. It costs in health care to the tune of $602 million annually and in lives, killing 2,200 Maine adult tobacco users every year.
It costs by contributing to nearly every major illness known to modern medicine, and causes a multitude of preventive illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, lung cancer and stroke.
The bottom line: there is no safe level of tobacco use and despite industry arguments of “lesser harm,” smokeless tobacco use — the same as smoking — causes cancer, heart disease and tooth loss. These products result equally in the threat of addiction, chronic illness and death and, thus, should all be subject to equal taxation.
Equalization of the tax on these products creates an even playing field within the tobacco market, and will prevent the use of these products by Maine children.
The tobacco industry is taking advantage of the unfair tax structure, using it to obtain replacement smokers: Maine’s kids and young adults. Young people are particularly sensitive to product price. Increasing the price will help keep these products out of the hands of Maine children. Equalization will also deter adults from switching to cheaper tobacco products and encourage quitting.
Equalization closes loopholes that lead to lost revenue to the state, allowing it to fund important pro-health and pro-business initiatives that help keep the economy strong and families well. If the tax on other tobacco is equalized with the current tax on cigarettes, between $6 and $8 million in new revenue can be raised each year. That is money that can be used to help negate cuts to important health programs, support job growth, and improve the overall status of Maine’s economy.
The great work Maine has done to reduce tobacco use should not be insulted by ignoring a glaring loophole in the laws, loopholes that allow some products to avoid the same taxing requirements as cigarettes.
Regardless of the product, tobacco keeps people addicted to nicotine — a drug more difficult to quit than heroin.
With that in mind, I strongly encourage the Maine Legislature to support equalizing the tax on these equally dangerous, addictive products.
Dervilla McCann, MD, is a cardiologist practicing in Auburn and a volunteer with the American Heart Association.