Higher prices may succeed where peer pressure, public service announcements and medical research fail to thwart youth tobacco use, according to state officials who are looking to raise the cost of smoking, or chewing or dipping.
“We know that these products get your attention, young people’s attention, because the price is so affordable,” said Interim Commissioner of Public Health Dr. Lauren Smith, holding up 69-cent single-wrapped cigars in the flavors of grape, white grape and blueberry, while speaking to a group of student activists who are mobilized against tobacco.
After the event, she told reporters, “Price is one of the most important ways of decreasing youth use as well as use by adults, but especially young people because they’re so price-sensitive.”
Legislation filed in the House and Senate would increase the cigarette tax by $1, raising it to $3.51 per pack, a policy that Gov. Deval Patrick is attempting to enact. Lawmakers are also seeking to broaden the definition of smokeless tobacco and increasing the taxes on those products as well.
“Obviously we’re opposed to that tobacco tax increase,” said David Sutton, a spokesman for Altria, the parent company of tobacco manufacturer Phillip Morris. Sutton told the News Service the proposed tax increase could have “unintended consequences” of driving sales to New Hampshire, or creating an opening for organized crime selling black market cigarettes.
Sutton dismissed the argument that raising the price of cigarettes would discourage youths from smoking by saying that youths are already prohibited from buying cigarettes and that Massachusetts retailers have a high rate of complying with the age restriction. He said because of the falling sales of cigarettes states tend to overstate the value of a cigarette-tax, and said the tax would be borne by adult smokers.
“They’re already very heavily taxed,” Sutton said. The increase would mean state and federal taxes account for 62 percent of the price of a pack of cigarettes, Sutton said. He said, “It gets to this question of tax equity.”
In 2008, the Legislature raised the cigarette tax to $2.51 per pack but “forgot” about raising taxes on other types of tobacco, Rep. Jonathan Hecht (D-Watertown) told the crowd at Great Hall. Hecht said that created a loophole, and said, “They drove a truck right through that loophole.”
“We forgot that there were other parts of tobacco products,” said Sen. Harriette Chandler (D-Worcester). She said, “It was inadvertent, and for some reason we didn’t get it through last year.”