EUGENE, Ore. (KMTR) – Public health officials and county commissioners are weighing in on a new proposal in front of the Oregon Legislature to let counties add another tax on tobacco.
Proposed House Bill 2870 would allow Oregon counties to levy their own tax on packs of cigarettes and tobacco products. If it passes, the bill would raise money for county health services and other county programs.
Lane County public health officials say preventing tobacco use and getting smokers to quit has been their number one priority since 1964 when the US Surgeon General’s Office released its initial reports on the ill health effects related to smoking and tobacco use and because of the public cost tobacco use brings.
“It has taken a while for people to realize that this is a huge societal cost and while people can choose to smoke and that's fine, society still has to find a way to pay for the outcomes or the problems around that,” said Dr. Patrick Luedtke, Medical Director for the Lane County Community Health Clinics.
The proposed tobacco tax would allow counties to set the rate taxed per product. Currently, the state taxes $1.18 per tobacco product. The bill’s current language requires that least twenty percent of the funding raised by the tax to go toward public health programs or services in the individual county levying the tax. The rest of the money raised could go anywhere in the county’s government.
Lane County public health officials say that one in four deaths in Lane County are tobacco-related. Health officials say more than one third of Lane County’s Medicaid population smokes cigarettes. While Medicaid patients are covered by Federal government funding, counties and cities still end up footing the bill for some of the health services they receive.
“We need the resources to address it without becoming a nanny state, without trampling on personal liberties, without those sort of issues that are of concern today and the world that we live in. So public health is looking for the way to do it and this is one of the ways,” said Dr. Luedtke.
Currently, only the state is able to collect revenue from the tobacco tax. While counties benefit from those funds in various ways, many end up footing a larger share of the costs related to smoking and tobacco use than the amount of support they receive from state tobacco product tax dollars. With dwindling budgets, many counties are looking for ways to continue funding smoking cessation and prevention programs. Lane County public health officials say if they reduce funding to cessation and prevention efforts, tobacco use rates will likely rise.
“For me, if we can direct any taxation that occurs surrounding cigarettes, direct it into treatment programs, into human services and health services programs, then it's going to be a good [use] of the money,” said Pat Farr, a Lane County Commissioner.
Lane County public health officials say that raising the cost of tobacco products will ultimately result in a drop in use by about half the rate that the price is raised. So, if cigarette prices are raised ten percent, smoking rates go down by about five percent, according to health officials projections.
Opponents of the bill argue that the proposed tax is regressive and it will hurt low income users the most. Opponents also have an issue with the language of the bill leaving room for counties to set the local cigarette tax at any amount.
Lawmakers will work on the bill at a Wednesday, March 27 work session in Salem. Many are expecting that the bill’s language will change as part of the discussion in the session.