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Tobacco tax hike measure approved for N.D. ballot in November

BISMARCK — North Dakota voters will decide in November whether to raise taxes on tobacco products for the first time since 1993, including a fivefold increase in the cigarette tax that sponsors of the ballot measure hope will motivate adults to quit smoking and prevent young people from starting.

Secretary of State Al Jaeger announced Wednesday that 21,698 of the 22,840 signatures that sponsors submitted in early July were accepted as being qualified. Sponsors needed 13,452 signatures to place the proposed change in state law on the Nov. 8 ballot.

In addition to hiking the cigarette tax from 44 cents to $2.20 per pack, 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.

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.

Kristie Wolff, tobacco control manager for the American Lung Association in North Dakota, a coalition partner, said organizers are still planning the campaign. She declined to discuss their strategy but said it will be "very grassroots."

"We'll definitely be ramping up the education across the state" now that the measure is on the ballot, she said.

Backers estimate the tax hike would generate more than $50 million a year, which would 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 Retail Association President Mike Rud has said he expects the group will vigorously oppose the measure, saying supporters aren't considering the impact on businesses and smokers. Rud couldn't immediately be reached for comment.

Wolff said reduced smoking rates will save millions in health care costs annually, and the additional tax revenue will provide money for behavioral health services and other areas hurt by recent state budget cuts. But the biggest reason for the measure is to prevent children from starting to use tobacco, she said.

"This is about saving lives," she said.

North Dakota's current tobacco tax ranks 47th lowest among the states and hasn't been increased since 1993, despite several attempts in the Legislature, including two failed bills last year that were strongly opposed by retailers and distributors.

Status of N.D. ballot measures

Approved for the Nov. 8 ballot:

-- A constitutional measure proposed by the 2015 Legislature would prohibit lawmakers from serving in the Legislature unless they live in the district where voters elected them.

-- A constitutional measure brought by lawmakers would allow excess money in the state's Foundation Aid Stabilization Fund to be used for education purposes other than offsetting cuts to education funding when there's a revenue shortage.

-- An initiated measure inspired by California's Marsy's Law would expand North Dakota crime victims' rights as listed in current state law and enshrine them in the state constitution.

-- An initiated measure backed by the Raise it for Health North Dakota coalition would increase tobacco taxes from 44 cents to $2.20 per pack on cigarettes and from 28 percent to 56 percent of the whole purchase price on other tobacco products, including liquid nicotine used in electronic cigarettes.

Signatures under review:

-- An initiative measure named by sponsors as the Compassionate Care Act would allow the use of marijuana for medical purposes. Sponsors submitted about 17,600 signatures last month and need 13,452 valid signatures to make the ballot.

Compiled by Mike Nowatzki

Mike Nowatzki

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

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