Tobacco Tourism Comes of Age

Once again, Len is having technical issues on his blog, so we are proud to host his latest post here. –djs

By: Len Lichtenfeld, MD, Deputy Chief Medical Officer, American Cancer Society

Know what a “dilly” is?  The dictionary describes a “dilly” as something that is remarkable or extraordinary, as in size or quality.

Len Lichtenfeld, MD, Deputy Chief Medical Officer

The headline I came across the other day from the Associated Press is in fact a dilly of a story. It has some of my colleagues here at the American Cancer Society and our affiliated advocacy organization American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network more than a bit concerned: “NH, RI, NJ Buck Trend, Propose Cigarette Tax Cut.”

Hard to believe, but after years of making progress in the fight against big tobacco and helping people to kick the habit or prevent young people from taking up smoking in the first place, now come proposals that would take us backwards, putting more people at risk for their lives all in the name of economic recovery.

Folks, in my humble opinion, this is one screwed-up way for states to make money.

The story is reasonably straight forward: states are strapped for revenues, so they think they can poach people from other states looking for a cheap smoke, and get more money from tobacco taxes because people from adjoining states will come to their state to purchase cigarettes and other tobacco products.  Sort of like “Lure them here and let them die there.”

Talk about shifting the economic burden to others.  This one really takes the (proverbial) cake to a gross and illogical conclusion.

And then there was the quote from (I am certain) one well-intentioned businessman who likened the increased “attractiveness” of buying cigarettes in New Hampshire to a coming economic miracle:

“Cutting the rate a dime would cost the state tobacco tax revenues but would result in an offsetting increase in state taxes collected from people renting hotel rooms, eating in restaurants, buying alcoholic beverages, buying lottery tickets and buying gasoline. The net result would be no loss of revenue to the state but an incentive for tourists to visit the state to shop, he said.

“People coming from out of state are going to have an empty gas tank. They’re going to be hungry. They’re going to be tired,” he said. “It’s going to help every business.”

I guess this is the modern day version of Emma Lazarus poem which appears on the Statue of Liberty:

“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Not quite the same, is it?

I wonder if this has anything to do with the toll they collect when you enter New Hampshire’s golden door on Interstates 93 and 95? Now they will be glad to sell you cheap smokes as well.

The reality is that one of the proven means of reducing the use of tobacco products and improving the health of people is to raise tobacco taxes. Decreasing them will not only not result in replacing or increasing lost revenue, it will actually worsen the health of the population and increase the costs of the state caring for its citizens over time.

Ever since John Rolfe demonstrated in Jamestown in 1612 that tobacco could be a profitable crop, we have struggled with the impact and inherent conflict of interest tobacco has on our lives, our fiscal coffers and our national psyche. Can you imagine today what would happen if I went to market with a product that I guaranteed would kill half the people who use it if they use it as intended? I wouldn’t be in business a single week, let alone centuries. Never mind that the associated costs in terms of decreased productivity of its citizens and the health costs to care for those citizens—many of whom rely on state and federal health care dollars to keep them alive—are enormous.

The American Cancer Society, the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids and other organizations are vigorously opposed to this legislation. They have the data that shows the false assumptions used to promote such legislation in some states.

Here are some of those facts:

  1. An analysis by the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids estimates that even the modest ten cent rollback in the tax means that an additional 1,000 kids in New Hampshire will become addicted adult smokers.  There will also be 400 additional adult smokers in the state.
  2. The additional tobacco use caused by the tax rollback would increase tobacco-related disease and deaths and their resulting health care costs, including from lung cancer, heart attacks and strokes, smoking-affected pregnancies and births.  According to the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, a 10 cent per pack rollback in the tax would result in an estimated $21.3 million in new long-term health costs.
  3. In addition to the adverse health and health care cost impacts, cutting taxes on cigarettes and other tobacco products would reduce revenue – at a time when the state’s budget is already tight.  The New Hampshire Department of Revenue Administration estimated that HB 156 would decrease state revenues by between approximately $7.7 million and $14.8 million in FY 2012 and increase state expenditures by approximately $1.2 million in FY 2012.
  4. After the cigarette tax in Oregon decreased by 10 cents per pack on January 1, 2004, gross cigarette tax revenue decreased 7.0% from the year between July 1, 2003 and June 30, 2004 to the year between July 1, 2004 and June 30, 2005.

In the meantime, the New Hampshire House voted 236-93 to send the bill on to the Senate.  Go figure.

So now is the time for people to make a decision about what counts most in life: on one hand, health and lives; and on the other, a couple of extra pennies in the coffers of the state.

Have we really reached a new low in how we want to make our pennies while encouraging young people and adults to take up a habit that will kill them?

I certainly hope not, since if that’s what we have come to in our political process, it certainly poses a dilly of a dilemma for many of us.

About David Sampson

I am the director of medical and scientific communications for the American Cancer Society national home office.
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