Well-intentioned people are proposing another increase in
the Massachusetts cigarette tax of 50 cents a pack to finance health insurance for people whose employers don't provide it.
Acting Gov. Jane Swift has vowed a veto if it passes, even
though as a state senator she sponsored an earlier version to finance health care for children. Her current stand is the
right one. A governor's responsibility for the state's economy, budget and general welfare is
different from that of a single legislator.
Subsidized health insurance, if a good idea, is an appropriate charge on the state's revenues
as a whole. No program should be tied to the yield of a specific tax. Besides,
the state should not have a financial stake in an unhealthy activity most people would like to see die
The tax increase is estimated to bring in about $100 million
a year. But the "filthy habit" which supports it is in a long-term downward trend. Revenues surely will decline, and the
program's supporters will put in a claim on the general treasury, as they should have been doing from
the start, to compete with funds for schools and roads and everything else
the state finances. That should surprise nobody, though it probably will.
Tobacco is a tempting revenue source because most people
escape. Only about a fifth of the state's population are smokers (only seven states have fewer).
Smokers are concentrated in the lower-income groups. Raising
the tax on cigarettes imposes a real burden on them, even if it does act as a deterrent to starting for some young people. If
a husband and wife each smoke two packs a day, they'd have to pay $730 a year more.
That's the equivalent of an increase in the price of gasoline of 67 cents per gallon if each
drives a car an average amount.
This is an idea that may sound great, but it shouldn't be
Ottaway News Service
Thursday, May 10, 2001
Battle heats up over tobacco tax plan
By Jon Chesto
BOSTON -- When Josh Richardson severely cut his hand while
working on his car last weekend, he briefly thought about calling an ambulance.
Then the 20-year-old South Yarmouth resident ruled it out
because of the cost. Instead, he wrapped his bloody hand in two T-shirts and drove to Cape Cod Hospital so someone
could attend to his wound.
But Mr. Richardson still doesn't know how he'll pay for the
"This is just another expense I can't afford," said Mr.
Richardson, who works as a chimney sweep and has no health insurance.
If the state Legislature approves a 50-cent tax on cigarettes, he could be among nearly
85,000 additional adults who would be eligible for MassHealth, the state's insurance
plan, from funds generated by the tax increase.
That's one of the reasons why Mr. Richardson, a cigarette
smoker, joined more than 200 other people at the Statehouse yesterday to show support for the new tax at a hearing held
by the Taxation and Health Care committees. Advocates urged the committees to endorse
the plan, which would direct most of the new tax revenue to increase the number of adults
who can participate in MassHealth.
Senate President Thomas Birmingham, D-Chelsea, and Senate
Ways and Means Chairman Mark C.W. Montigny, D-New Bedford, kicked off the hearing by explaining that about
365,000 adults in the state don't have health insurance. They said the state
has a responsibility to help those people, most of whom work and pay taxes.
"Hundreds of thousands of our taxpaying citizens are walking
the streets every day without health care," said Sen. Montigny, a lead sponsor of the cigarette tax.
Sen. Montigny said a tax hike would likely discourage many
teens from taking up the habit, a possibility that he said is "horrifying to the tobacco industry." Sen. Montigny also
championed the last cigarette tax, a 25-cent increase in 1996 to help pay for children's health insurance,
and said teen smoking dropped after the Legislature approved that tax.
Speaker Birmingham, a cigarette smoker, said he only decided
to support the tax after considering other alternatives.
"Talk about health care is cheap," he said. "Unfortunately,
health care is not."
Although advocates dominated yesterday's hearing, many
people remain opposed the cigarette tax. As Massachusetts has the highest cigarette tax in New England and could have
the highest in the country if the new tax is passed, some opponents worry about the loss of
business as smokers choose to shop in neighboring states with lower cigarette taxes.
Other critics say the plan discriminates against smokers,
who already pay relatively high taxes and are indirectly paying for the cost of a multi-billion dollar settlement with the
"There's no one you can kick around more than the smokers
these days, but we've got to look a little further and there's not a lot of people doing that," said
Chip Ford, director of operations for Citizens for Limited
Taxation. "If we had a targeted tax on any other minority, there would be outrage."
Mr. Ford also said that if anti-smoking advocates successfully convince many people to stop
smoking, revenue from the cigarette tax would drop. That, in turn, would likely force
lawmakers to turn to the state's general fund to make up the difference.
Advocates are pushing for the proposed tax as part of a
concerted effort to get a new tax adopted in all six New England states. Lori Fresina, director of advocacy for the
American Cancer Society, said she believes the tax has the best chance of passing in Massachusetts
With support from key senators such as Birmingham and
Montigny, the tax is expected to pass in the Massachusetts Senate. It could face a fight in the House of Representatives,
which is typically more fiscally conservative than the Senate.
Acting Gov. Jane M. Swift has said she'll veto the tax if it
lands on her desk, so advocates will need to get enough support for the tax in the Legislature to overturn her veto.
The tax could become a contentious issue in the governor's
race next year, particularly if Sen. Birmingham and Gov. Swift both run.
Sen. Montigny said he believes the tax could help its
supporters, such as Sen. Birmingham, in next year's political campaigns.
"People see health care as more important right now than
anything," Sen. Montigny said.
State House News Service
Wednesday, May 9, 2001
Lots of tax hike supporters,
few opponents turn out for cig tax bill
By Elisabeth J. Beardsley
STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, MAY 9, 2001 ... Twenty-one years after she
quit smoking, Rep. Cory Atkins says, "I still dream about it."
After getting hooked at age 14, Atkins (D-Concord) built up
over the next 19 years to a three-pack-a-day habit. Post-quitting, she attended a White House dinner with her
then-congressman husband, and was shocked to find President Ronald Reagan's table set
with complimentary cigarettes.
In her thank-you letter, Atkins scolded the White House for
promoting a product that was costing taxpayers billions of dollars a year in health care expenses. The White House wrote
back and told her to "mind my own business," she said.
"But it is my business, and it's your business," Atkins said
today at a joint committee hearing on hiking the cigarette tax. "I love this 50-cent tax (hike) on tobacco. It's the only tax
that makes my heart sing."
A broad coalition, led by top Senate brass, is pushing to
hike the cigarette tax in all six New England states by 50 cents per pack. If imposed over a promised gubernatorial veto,
the tax hike would raise this state's excise to $1.26 per pack, catapulting Massachusetts past New
York into the position of the nation's top tobacco taxer. Bay State smokers currently pay
anywhere from $3.75 to $4.75 per pack.
Anti-smoking activists cite two goals -- to stamp out
smoking among teens and poor people by making it prohibitively expensive, and to expand health care coverage through the
estimated $150 million per year the tax hike would generate. About 365,000 Bay State
adults lack insurance. About 200,000 children received insurance through a 1996 tax hike of
25 cents per pack, imposed over former Gov. Weld's veto.
Senate President Thomas Birmingham (D-Chelsea), a likely
2002 gubernatorial candidate, said health care should be treated as a "right, not a commodity." Of the 365,000 uninsured
adults, 70 percent are "decent, hardworking people with jobs," he said. In addition to
insurance expansions, Birmingham said the money could also be used to assist hospitals in
dire financial straits.
"I pay this tax," said Birmingham, a smoker. "I will pay
this tax to ensure a life of decency, dignity and some security for the decent, hardworking people who make up the vast
majority of the uninsured."
Senate Ways and Means Chairman Mark Montigny, a lead sponsor
of one of the bills (H.2169/S.1703), said that between the voter-approved income tax cut and a slowing
economy, lawmaker just don't have enough money to do everything they want to do.
He shrugged off critics who decried heavy taxation of politically incorrect smokers as, in
Montigny's words, "the easy way out."
"There's no apology in admitting that," Montigny said. "We
have no opportunity to expand health care in Massachusetts today. Yet we have a crisis."
But Montigny acknowledged that would-be tax-hikers have "our
work cut out for us." It's unclear where the House stands on the issue -- speculation that the matter would come up
during budget debate fizzled out. Even if successful in both branches, the proposal faces a
certain veto by Acting Gov. Jane Swift, which would then require a two-thirds vote in both
chambers to override.
Swift, who supported the 1996 tax hike as a state senator,
recently signed a "no new taxes" pledge and intends to keep it, said spokeswoman Shawn Feddeman. "She vehemently will
oppose any attempt to raise taxes under any circumstances," Feddeman said.
Anti-tax activists turned out in tiny numbers at today's
joint hearing before the committees on Taxation and Health Care. Citizens for Limited Taxation Associate Director Chip
Faulkner criticized "zealots" who would raise a tax that falls disproportionately on the poor, rather than
spend the state's $8 billion tobacco settlement, a pot of money bestowed on the
state to address the costs of treating sick smokers.
The "most ominous" aspect of the proposed tax hike, Faulkner
said, is that smokers could take their money and flee in droves to low-tax New Hampshire. "If anything, (NH) Gov.
Jeanne Shaheen is going to have signs on the border saying, 'Come to New Hampshire!'"
But opponents were vastly outnumbered. About 200 people
turned out to support the tax increase, including public health groups, doctors, community health centers, hospitals,
pediatricians, ex-smokers who suffered devastating health consequences, and people who
lack health insurance.
Provincetown resident Josh Richardson, whose single mom died
in 1995 when he was 13, said he lost his MassHealth coverage after he graduated from high school. Richardson does
not have health insurance through his job as a chimneysweeper, and had to drive himself to
the hospital when he cut his hand badly enough to need stitches. "I couldn't afford the
ambulance ride," he said.
The committees also heard from Brockton resident Rolando
Martinez, the former baseball umpire who stars in the Department of Public Health's anti-smoking TV ads. Martinez
lost his larynx to cancer after 29 years of smoking, and speaks through a voice box. He said
death is not the only consequence smokers face. "Some of them probably will not die, but
their life will be changed forever," he said.
Massachusetts appears to be the easiest target in the
regional push for the higher tax, but the other five New England states are coming along, said American Cancer Society
lobbyist Lori Fresina. Vermont Gov. Howard Dean offered a 67-cent hike in his budget proposal, she
said. In Maine, Gov. Angus King has proposed a 26-cent increase, and the speaker of
the House is pushing a 50-cent hike, she said.
Rhode Island officials seem amenable to a 50-cent hike, but
getting the monies dedicated to tobacco control and health care programs will be "really difficult," Fresina said. Connecticut
is "trickier," given that it's a tobacco farming state and Gov. John Rowland has never signed a
tax hike, Fresina said.
New Hampshire, with its historical aversion to taxation,
could prove to be the holdout. But the Granite State's school funding crisis could make lawmakers more open to raising a tax
that's not broad-based, Fresina said. "New Hampshire is watching Massachusetts," she said.
"If we do this, they have nothing to lose. They'll still have the economic advantage, and
they'll have an extra $98 million in their coffers."