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Cigarette tax could rise by $1.76

UPDATED with Jaeger receiving petition; PHOTO

Raise it for Health North Dakota members

American Lung Association in North Dakota

North Dakota Veterans Coordinating Council

Tobacco Free North Dakota

Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids

North Dakota Nurses Association

North Dakota Medical Association

North Dakota Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics

March of Dimes

North Dakota Association of Counties

Dakota Boys and Girls Ranch

BISMARCK — A group frustrated with the North Dakota Legislature's repeated refusal to raise tobacco taxes will attempt to put the issue to voters in November, announcing a ballot initiative Wednesday that would hike the tax on a pack of cigarettes by $1.76.

The measure also would increase the tax on other tobacco products, including liquid nicotine used in electronic cigarettes, from 28 percent to 56 percent of the wholesale purchase price.

Backers will need to gather 13,452 signatures by July 11 to place the initiated measure on the Nov. 8 ballot. They submitted the petition Wednesday afternoon to Secretary of State Al Jaeger, whose office has until March 28 to approve it for circulation.

Dr. Eric Johnson, a Grand Forks physician and chairman of the measure's 30-member sponsoring committee, estimated that the higher tax would reduce youth smoking by 20 percent, preventing 5,800 youths from ever starting smoking.

He noted North Dakota voters approved a tobacco use prevention and control program with tobacco settlement dollars in 2008 and passed a smoke-free workplace law in 2012, calling the higher tax "kind of the missing leg of the three-legged stool."

"We do know that it reduces usage, and that saves money for everybody," he said.

Ten organizations partnering as the Raise it for Health North Dakota coalition are pushing the measure, including Tobacco Free North Dakota, the North Dakota Medical Association and the North Dakota Veterans Coordinating Council, which represents five military veteran groups.

Supporters estimate the tax increase would generate more than $50 million a year to be split between a community health trust fund and a new trust fund to support health care services and programs for military veterans.

North Dakota American Legion Adjutant David Johnson, a representative of the veterans council, said service members up through the Vietnam War were given cigarettes with their daily food rations, and many are now facing health challenges associated with years of tobacco use.

While some revenue from the higher tax would fund services for veterans, "The greater benefit will be stopping whole new generations of soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen from ever beginning a lifetime of addiction to tobacco," he said.

North Dakota's current 44-cent tax on a pack of cigarettes ranks 47th lowest among the states and hasn't been increased since 1993, despite several attempts in the Legislature, including two bills defeated last year amid strong pushback from retailers and distributors.

North Dakota Retail Association President Mike Rud said he expects the group will "vigorously" oppose the measure if it ends up on the ballot, saying supporters aren't considering the impact on businesses and smokers.

"You're taxing a group of people who can least afford to be taxed, and with the economy the way it is at this stage in our state, that's kind of a tough one to swallow," he said.

Eric Johnson acknowledged that those in lower socioeconomic classes are one of two groups most affected by higher cigarette taxes, the other being youths, and he said higher taxes have a bigger impact on prevention and quit rates among those groups.

"This is a tax that nobody has to pay. This is not a product that's required for living. It's actually a product that creates death," he said.

Rud said personal responsibility has to enter into it, and he questioned whether "other legal products that aren't good for you" will be targeted with higher taxes next.

"We're not out there force-feeding these products to our customers. That's the hardest part about all of this," he said.

Mike Nowatzki

Mike Nowatzki reports for Forum News Service. He can be reached at (701) 255-5607.

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