Proposed Tobacco Tax Increase Will Simply Encourage More Smuggling

State legislatures across the country have piled on the tobacco taxes over the past decade. Not surprisingly, this has created a growing problem of tobacco smuggling. As the tax rate rises, it encourages people to buy products from low-tax states and sell them illegally in high-tax states.

New York is the most obvious example of this problem. The Empire State has a tax rate of $4.35/pack, far higher than most other states. As a result, an estimated 57% of all cigarettes sold in New York are brought in by smugglers.

This creates multiple problems. Cigarette buyers are inconvenienced; state legislators lose the tax revenue they were hoping for; and smuggling increases the likelihood of violence, since there are no legal ways to settle disputes among competitors.

These lessons seem lost on Oregon legislators. The House Revenue committee will consider House Bill 2555 on February 25, which would raise the tobacco tax by $1.00/pack. Currently, only about 12.7% of Oregon cigarettes are smuggled. If the new tax passes, more sales will take place in the underground economy, and net revenue to the state could actually decline.

With smoking now banned in virtually all indoor environments, the non-smoking majority is completely protected from secondhand smoke. There is no reason for additional taxes just because smokers are in the minority.

Tobacco Cessation or Just Increasing General Fund Revenue?

The Oregon legislature is once again trying to raise the cigarette tax, this time by $1.00 per pack. According to the sponsors of the bill―Representative Mitch Greenlick and Senator Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, both of west Portland―the primary purpose of HB 2275 is to reduce tobacco consumption, not raise revenue for the state.

But the bill itself tells another story. It states in Section 6 that “All moneys from the taxes imposed by this Act shall be credited to the General Fund.” Where is the specific assistance for smokers trying to quit smoking? It’s not there. Under current law, the state’s Tobacco Use Reduction account receives only 2.9% of all current cigarette tax revenue, and HB 2275 does not increase that.

Moreover, since 1999 the state has received more than $1 billion from smokers through the so-called “Master Settlement Agreement” with the four largest tobacco companies. That money was supposed to pay for the “costs of smoking” imposed on society. Yet, most of those funds were spent on other programs that had little to do with public health, and none of it went to tobacco cessation programs.

Smokers are routinely picked on by legislators because they are a vulnerable minority, but they are already paying more than their fair share of taxes. If reducing tobacco use is really the goal, it’s time for politicians to try another approach.

John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

The Wages of Sin Taxes

In a misguided attempt to save us from ourselves, Oregon legislators have become addicted to the so-called sin taxes they place on booze, drugs, and gambling. If we don’t break their addiction, it will expand into areas such as sugary soft drinks and fatty foods.

Now, a provocative new study challenges the whole concept of sin taxes, finding that they “not only do little to limit the use of ‘bad’ products, they do nothing to reduce societal costs.” Most remarkably, the study “demonstrates that those shockingly large estimates of the costs that the consumption of alcohol, tobacco, sugar, and fat supposedly impose on society have little basis in reality.”
Sin taxes also hit the poor harder than the rich. That’s because products like tobacco and state lotteries are disproportionately purchased by lower income people.

 

Sin taxes also give governments “a financial incentive to foster the very vices they profess to despise.” This may explain why, out of the more than one billion dollars Oregon has received to date from the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement between 46 states and the tobacco companies, “not one penny has gone to tobacco prevention.” Prevention would cut into the state’s lucrative tobacco tax revenue, just as it would cut into state monopoly liquor revenue. The same goes for the state lottery that supposedly does good things at the expense of addicted gamblers.

It’s time that Oregon break its addiction to sin taxes.

Steve Buckstein is founder and Senior Policy Analyst at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.