[This commentary was first published in The Oregonian.]
The Marlboro Man hung up his spurs and Joe Camel was put out to pasture long ago, but marketing by tobacco companies hasn’t gone away. Not by a long shot. In Oregon alone, Big Tobacco spends some $115 million a year peddling its deadly product, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. Barred by law from certain forms of advertising, tobacco companies have also turned to social media to lure young audiences.
Cigarettes and other tobacco products take a heavy toll on the health and finances of people in our state, especially low-income Oregonians. Reducing this burden alone is a very good reason to support the tobacco tax package proposed by Gov. Kate Brown.
Tobacco killed nearly 8,000 Oregonians in 2016, making it the number one cause of preventable death in the state. Most worrisome, tobacco is already laying claim to future casualties: according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, more than 15,000 high school students in Oregon already smoke.
Besides its impact on health, tobacco use also comes with a steep financial cost. The costs of health care due to tobacco use in Oregon surpassed $1.4 billion in 2013, data from the Oregon Health Authority show. Family finances suffer too. A household with one smoker who consumes one pack per day may spend about $2,200 a year – a significant sum, especially for low-income families.
How can Oregon slow down the health and financial ravages of this deadly product? Raise the price and invest the revenue in prevention, cessation, and health care. Gov. Brown’s proposal would up the cigarette tax by $2 per pack and raise taxes on other forms of tobacco. While the main goal of the plan is ensure that the Oregon Health Plan has enough resources to provide health coverage to low- and moderate-income Oregonians, the governor’s plan also devotes a portion of the new revenue to tobacco prevention and cessation efforts.
Cynically, tobacco companies may claim that tobacco taxes are regressive because they disproportionately impact the poor. But it is low-income communities who would benefit the most from an increase in tobacco taxes.
Low-income people are more likely to smoke, and that is no accident. They are often the target of advertising campaigns by the tobacco industry. Not only are children from these communities bombarded with ads selling a highly addictive product, they are also more exposed to tobacco products. Researchers have found that communities with high rates of poverty have higher densities of tobacco retailers. And these products are not your grandpa’s Lucky Strikes. From cookies ‘n cream e-cigarettes to wild berry cigars, these tobacco products target young people with years of addiction ahead of them.
Raising the price of tobacco has a deterrent effect. Our organization, the [Oregon Center for Public Policy, estimates] (https://www.ocpp.org/2019/04/25/tobacco-tax-oregon-increase/) that a $2 increase in the cost of a pack of cigarettes would prompt between 52,000 and 86,000 current smokers to quit, based on our analysis of data from the Oregon Health Authority and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
As valuable as deterrence is, it’s not the most significant piece of the governor’s proposal when it comes to tobacco use. The best way to address tobacco consumption is preventing people from getting hooked in the first place and helping those who smoke quit. Oregon’s Tobacco Prevention and Education Program employs counter-marketing strategies and cessation-support interventions proven to work. Additional funding will enable the state to help more people.
The governor’s tobacco tax package is good for our state, protecting funding for the Oregon Health Plan while cutting down the number of smokers. With the legislative session entering its final phase, lawmakers should not delay further in enacting this important bill that will save lives and improve the health of Oregonians.