Tobacco tax is personal for Utah lawmaker
Rep. Paul Ray doesn't need to look far to see the toll of a lifetime of smoking.
His mother wheels an oxygen cart with her since she was stricken with emphysema after nearly 50 years of smoking.
His father died from the habit and Ray says doctors have blamed his own heart defect, which has resulted in four different surgeries, on his mother's smoking.
The Clearfield Republican said he has worked since he was 12 to help his family buy food because his family's money was going to cigarettes.
So his multiyear fight to hike the tobacco tax is intensely personal. His goal, he says, is to give people a reason to quit.
On Friday, the House Health and Human Services Committee approved Ray's proposal to raise Utah's tobacco tax to $1.71, almost 2½ times the current rate, and tie it to the tax rate in the 42 other non-tobacco-producing states to ensure it rises automatically in the future.
Opponents of the bill called it an attempt at social engineering and said it would drive tobacco sales to surrounding states where the tax rate is lower.
"I don't like cigarettes. I don't like smokers," said Rep. Stephen Sandstrom, R-Orem. "But I am extremely concerned and I'm worried about the danger of trying to use tax policy to change social behavior."
Joyce Mitchell, who identified herself as a Mormon mother testifying before the committee "on behalf of liberty," said smokers take an informed risk and pay for their decision.
"I know you're getting a lot of calls and letters from do-gooders out there who want to help smokers quit and while they're at it get their hands on some of the money," she said. The result of raising the tax would be that smokers would stop buying shoes for their families or taking them to the dentist.
"We are all going to die of something, and we can't ban or punish people for everything that is life-threatening," she said.
Ray's proposal would raise the tax from its current level of 69.5 cents per pack up to $1.71. In the process, he said, it would make 13,000 people quit smoking and deter 19,000 children from taking up the habit in the first place.
It would generate $46 million in new tax revenue, part of which would be earmarked for cancer research and tobacco prevention in schools.
"The suffering from cancer is immense. ... We see it in our families, our neighborhoods and churches," said Mary Beckerle, director of the Huntsman Cancer Institute. "This single act is a major step that can be taken to reduce the burden of cancer."
But it would also reduce sales by $77 million, which David Davis, vice president of the Utah Retail Merchants Association, said would hurt a shaky economy and is a shortsighted money grab.
"We're not going to decrease consumption. However, what we're going to do is push these sales into other channels outside the state or onto the Internet," he said, warning that Twinkies and video games could be next to be taxed to combat childhood obesity.
The committee voted 5-2 to send it to the full House for consideration, with Sandstrom and Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem, voting against the bill. Ray said he believes he has the votes in the House to pass it.
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