Colorado’s tobacco tax fight: A war of words

How do you get people to stop smoking?

Proponents of an increased tobacco tax think it could be as simple as making smoking more expensive.

The Campaign for a Healthy Colorado, a coalition of healthcare providers and advocacy groups, kicked off its campaign last week to pass a ballot measure that would increase Colorado’s tobacco tax. On July 6, the group held a celebration at National Jewish Health that was followed by signature gathering training. To secure a spot on the ballot, the campaign needs 98,492 valid signatures. They currently have about 60,000.

Reducing smoking rates seems like a good idea to many who prioritize public health, but the success of the campaign is far from a sure thing. Let The Colorado Independent walk you through this issue’s past, present and future.


The past: Colorado raises its tobacco tax for the first time

Back in 2004, Colorado voters passed Amendment 35, which increased Colorado’s tobacco tax from 20 to 84 cents per pack of cigarettes. Prior to the initiative, Colorado was dead last in tobacco taxes — the lowest in the country. And not only that, it had been below the national average for about seven years, by between 6 cents in 1998 to 46 cents in 2003.

According to Campaign for a Healthy Colorado spokeswoman Myung Kim, the impact of Amendment 35 on smoking rates was striking and immediate. “In the immediate aftermath of that election, we saw some significant decreases in cigarette sales and an uptick in activity around people trying to quit,” Kim said.

That increase put Colorado’s tax rate in line with the national average — temporarily. By 2007, the average cigarette tax in the U.S. was $1.05, 25 percent higher than Colorado’s 84 cents.

Funds raised from the tobacco tax go to state programs run by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), that award grants to nonprofits, businesses and government agencies that remedy health disparities, conduct research and work to prevent tobacco use.  But some groups want to expand that support to include programs such as mental health care for veterans, health access in rural areas and youth health services.  


The present: Health groups join together to increase the tax again

In the past few years, some of the same groups that worked to pass Amendment 35 started to discuss raising the tax again.

“The conversation began about a year and a half ago with a group called the Lung Cancer Task Force who would meet at National Jewish,” said Jodi Radke, Rocky Mountain director of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

Radke said that the groups were concerned that Colorado cigarette sales had increased in 2015.  They brainstormed a slate of different tactics to reduce smoking rates, and ultimately landed on an increase in the tobacco tax.

“Definitively and unequivocally, the data show that when states add a significant increase [to the tax], the public health benefit of doing so is exponential, and the higher the level of increase, the higher the level of benefits to states,” Radke said.

Radke added that many of the groups simply wanted to do more to prevent cancer. “[It was a]  combination of dynamics around health groups looking for ways to do more to reduce cancer and nationally seeing us fall in the ranks [on the tobacco tax],” Radke said.

The Campaign for a Healthy Colorado’s ballot initiative seeks to add an additional tax of $1.75 per pack to the 84 cent per-pack tax consumers already pay. I would also increase the tax on other tobacco products like cigars and chewing tobacco by 22 percent. The campaign estimates that it will raise about $315 million per year. Those funds would be used for programs such as youth services, veterans support, and rural access to health care. A precise breakdown of where the money will go is available on their website.


The future: Challenges aplenty in store for the campaign

Of all industries one could threaten with a 108 percent tax, Big Tobacco is one that is not to be underestimated.

As recently as the past few months, the tobacco industry donated $50 million to fight a California effort to raise its tobacco tax by $1 on the primary ballot. A blizzard of radio and television advertisements inundated Californians’ screens, and the initiative (Proposition 29) failed by less than half a percent.

The health advocates were no average Joes, either. High-profile individuals such as Michael Bloomberg, Tom Steyer and Lance Armstrong threw their financial and symbolic weight behind the measure, and it still failed.

The Campaign for a Healthy Colorado is not naive about this threat. “The industry has communicated that they are intending to spend $15 million [in Colorado],” Radke said. “They are working to protect their bottom line and their profit margin.”

Still, Radke remains optimistic. “It’s not something that will deter our efforts moving forward,” she said.

Part of the problem with the tobacco industry is that they’ve caught on to a certain paradox in the way the tax works. As worthy as the tax-funded programs may be — and as much as the tax is intended to decrease smoking — their success hinges upon people continuing to buy cigarettes. If, as the campaign predicts, people start buying fewer cigarettes, the programs would see decreased benefits.

Radke said that they’re aware of this conundrum and have a well-informed plan to confront it.

“[The tax] is a very slightly and predictably declining source of revenue,” Radke said. “We have a lot of data (from other states’ tax increases) to base our projections on, so the programs that are funded under the initiative understand that it’s part of the percentage that they receive.”

Radke anticipates that the tobacco industry will use the expected-decrease aspect of the tax as a weak point in their campaign. “I’m sure they’ll say it’s unpredictable, but it’s really a slow, steady decline,” she said.

Photo credit: Julie, Creative Commons, Flickr