Sunday, May 13, 2012
Tax tobacco products equally

Massachusetts has slashed youth cigarette smoking by more than half in the last two decades, aided significantly by higher taxes that rose to $2.51 a pack in 2008. But an underworld of tobacco products, not subject to the same level of state and federal taxation, has emerged into broad daylight: Strawberry, vanilla, and wine-flavored cigars; mango and chocolate blunt wraps; watermelon, grape, and peach snuff pouches; and dissolvable coffee- and wintergreen-flavored orbs that look like Tic Tac breath mints. Since 2003, use of these “other tobacco products,” or OTPs, by Massachusetts kids has risen from 13.3 percent to 17.6 percent of high schoolers, surpassing the 16 percent of teens who smoke cigarettes.

Earlier this year, the Government Accountability Office reported that non-cigarette tobacco products have tripled their share of the smoking market in the last decade, from 3 percent to 9 percent. The tobacco firm Altria recently boasted of a quarterly volume jump of 14.5 percent for its cigar line and a 19 percent rise in smokeless products income since 2009.

For three years now, legislators including Representative Jonathan Hecht, a Watertown Democrat, and Senator Harriette Chandler, a Worcester Democrat, have advocated closing the state tax loophole on OTPs. Governor Patrick proposed doubling the taxes on such products in his fiscal 2013 budget. Patrick’s proposal was a non-starter in the no-new-taxes budget of House Speaker Robert DeLeo. But a bill by Hecht to equalize tobacco taxes has been referred favorably to the joint committee on health care financing. Advocates hope to insert the provision into the final health care bill currently being hashed out on Beacon Hill. And they should.

Closing the loophole could add up to $13.5 million a year to state coffers as it simultaneously dissuades teens from products that in many cases are only half the cost of cigarettes. It also takes the state out of the business of abetting sales of this nicotine candy. This is a loophole no legislator should want to keep open.

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