State hooked on tobacco revenue

Let’s put aside the argument that if someone is old enough to be sent to war, he or she is old enough to smoke tobacco.

Someone will have to explain to us how one is related to the other, and why, under that standard, that same 18- or 19- or 20-year-old isn’t old enough to drink alcohol.

But there’s a bigger stumbling block for legislation in the state House and Senate, proposed by Attorney General Bob Ferguson, that would raise the legal age for tobacco use to 21 from 18; lawmakers don’t think they can afford it.

A fiscal analysis prepared by the nonpartisan state Office of Financial Management concluded that passage of the legislation would result in a loss of more than $10 million in revenue for this fiscal year and nearly $22 million for the 2017-19 budget cycle. After moving out of the House Health Care and Wellness Committee earlier this month on a 9-3 vote, House Bill 2313 has been waiting in Appropriations to be moved to the floor.

“We can’t figure out how we can afford it with all the other things we need to pay for,” Rep. Hans Dunshee, D-Snonohomish, chairman of committee and the chief budget writer, told The Herald’s Jerry Confield for a story in today’s edition.

That the state is in a difficult financial position is clear. Finding the revenue for a supplemental budget that pays the past-due bills for fighting last summer’s wildfires and makes a dent in the state’s problems funding mental health care and education will be challenge enough. But passing up on legislation to increase the smoking age because “we can’t afford it,” ignores the larger savings such a change will provide in years to come.

Ferguson’s office, in arguing for the legislation, reported that $2.81 billion in health care costs are attributable to tobacco in the state each year. Nationwide, if the smoking age were raised to 21, children born between 2000 and 2019 would suffer nearly a quarter-million fewer deaths and 45,000 fewer deaths from lung cancer, the Intitute of Medicine reported last year.

And the effect would spread beyond those ages 18 to 20; smoking also would drop for younger teens, who typically get their cigarettes from older peers. Needham, Massachusetts, was the first jurisdiction to raise the smoking age to 21 in 2005. Since then, youth smoking has decreased there by 50 percent.

Last year, when Gov. Jay Inslee proposed raising the tax on a pack of cigarettes by 50 cents, his office estimated it would save the state $756,000 in the first year in health care costs, increasing to a savings of $9.7 million by 2021. Similarly, an analysis by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy in 2014 found that a 10 percent increase in the cigarette tax would decrease youth smoking by 3.5 percent.

Age is an important consideration here. And the tobacco companies know it. In a 1982 report, an R.J. Reynolds researcher wrote, “If a man has never smoked by age 18, the odds are three-to-one he never will. By age 24, the odds are twenty-to-one.” Statistics support that finding; 95 percent of smokers begin using tobacco before age 21. The years between 18 and 21 appear to be a critical period for developing an addiction to nicotine.

The state is fighting its own addiction, reliance on easily adopted sin taxes. Such taxes have a place in discouraging use, as they do in making tobacco less affordable for youths and adults. And the revenue they provide is best used to support programs that address associated health and social problems.

But Washington state’s considerable cigarette tax, $3.03 per pack, goes to the general fund and in 2013 provided more than $81 million to the state coffers, according to the Tax Policy Center.

Teens and young adults need to be discouraged from picking up tobacco. And the state needs to find a healthier and reliable source of tax revenue that doesn’t depend on sticking people with addiction and disease.

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