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N.D. should increase tobacco taxes

North Dakota should raise taxes on tobacco products. The state's tax is among the lowest in the nation (44 cents on a pack of cigarettes); indeed lower than some of the major tobacco-growing states.

Raising the tax, which has been at an embarrassing low level for decades, comports nicely with North Dakota's successful anti-tobacco public health efforts, and specifically would deter young people from buying cigarettes. Every state that has raised cigarette taxes has found it is a significant factor in preventing youngsters and young adults from buying.

Two bills are in the legislative hopper. A House bill calls for an increase to $1.56 a pack; a Senate bill would raise the tax to $1.10. Both bills have bipartisan sponsors, recognition that recent public opinion surveys found support for a higher tax among all political persuasions, with the only resistance to a higher tax coming from smokers. The tax increases in both bills are too low, but would be a start if a majority of lawmakers see the issue for what it is: a public health initiative, not retail sales problem.

It is first and foremost a public health matter. Of course retail sales of cigarettes and other tobacco products would take a hit. That's the aim of a higher tax. So the crux of the matter is the choice posited by columnist Steve Andrist in the Crosby (N.D.) Journal: "In the final analysis, it comes down to what you want to save: sales or lives."

The retail lobby and legislators who oppose a higher tax are confronted with that stark choice.

The most recent poll of North Dakotans' attitudes about a higher tobacco tax (and the e-cigarette phenomenon) shows a majority of all partisan subgroups support an increase. Not surprisingly, the state's smoke-free law, which was resisted for years by the Legislature and was at last approved by ballot measure, has support across all partisan and demographic lines, according to the December 2014 Public Opinion Strategies poll.

Furthermore, the polling found that attempts to allow e-cigarettes in public places (that is, exempt them from the state's tobacco restrictions law), "is a non-starter with North Dakotans." The few lawmakers pushing e-cig exemptions might want to rethink their proposals.

Finally, the lesson of the Legislature's longtime refusal to act on a statewide tobacco-use ban is instructive for the tax debate. A ballot measure to enact a ban — after several cities, large and small had imposed their own bans — easily passed a statewide vote. It was a clear repudiation of the Legislature's intransigence on the tobacco issue.

If lawmakers remain in the pocket of a shortsighted and out-of-step retail lobby (the same group that vigorously fought a statewide smoking ban), North Dakotans would be justified in taking the tobacco tax to the ballot. All indications suggest it would win easy approval.

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