A buck a pack o’ butts

You can contact the Nevada Tobacco Prevention Coalition at 333-9431.
Kendall Stagg insists on calling the idea “a win-win-win.” That’s the phrase he keeps coming back to as he, along with others from the Nevada Tobacco Prevention Coalition, offer up a solution to the state budget deficit, increasing public health costs and the staggering number of smokers per capita in Nevada. Three problems rolled into one smokin’ solution—an increased excise tax on cigarettes.

Stagg’s the policy manager for the Nevada Tobacco Prevention Coalition, which represents 40 other groups such as the American Cancer Society. He’s also a candidate for the Reno City Council (Ward 4—if you’re voting).

Stagg recently gave a presentation on cigarette excise taxes to the Governor’s Task Force on Tax Policy. He brought his laptop, complete with PowerPoint presentation, to RN&R World Headquarters this week to do a replay.

The state is looking for a cool $100 million to make up an expected budget deficit. If you slap an extra $1 tax on every pack of Camels, you’re looking at a slick $151.6 million. Drop it to 50 cents, and that’s $81.2 million, after accounting for the folks expected to quit or reduce their smoking because of the added expense. At any rate, money will be made.

“Every single state that has ever increased its excise tax on cigarettes has increased revenues,” Stagg says, pointing to a large, fat binder with reams of statistics. I believe him.

So it’s a financial “win,” right? But, wait, there’s more. When smokes cost more, folks smoke less. This drastically reduces health care costs. Stagg says the reduction could be to the tune of $600 million. About $96 million of that comes out of the state’s coffers as Medicaid program payments.

So it’s a health-care win, too. OK.

Finally, according to a recent poll, Nevada voters support higher cigarette taxes. The support crosses party lines, gender lines and geographical lines. Actually, support for the tax in the Reno area is a bit higher than in the rest of the state.

The tobacco excise tax in Nevada now stands at 35 cents a pack. It hasn’t increased in more than a decade, probably thanks to our friendly Phil Morris lobbyists at the Nevada Legislature. The states all around us have higher taxes on cigarettes. California charges 87 cents a pack—and may soon raise that by 63 cents to $1.50. Arizona charges 58 cents, with a 60-cent hike pending, and Utah collects nearly 70 cents a pack.

Nevada: An island of cheap butts.

I try to think of hard questions. I talk to our office smokers.

“Go ahead and slap a buck tax on cigarettes,” they tell me. “It’s a luxury.”

Still, isn’t taxing cigarettes a regressive tax, one that disproportionately targets poor communities?

“Won’t it be unfair to those who’ll have to give up groceries to buy smokes?” I ask.

Stagg points to studies that show low-income smokers are more likely to quit because of tobacco-tax increases than are higher-income smokers. Quitting gives these folks more money to buy needed items like food, and it’s great for their kids who won’t be exposed to all that second-hand smoke.

Sounds like a win to me.