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Blair Horner : New York Can't Stop Fighting Big Tobacco

A new report from the federal government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) contains good news and bad news about smoking in America.    First the good news, according to the CDC, total cigarette consumption continued an 11-year downward trend with a 2.5 percent decline from 2010 to 2011.  

But the CDC identified very bad news for the nation’s health.   Dramatic increases in use of non-cigarette smoked tobacco products have slowed the long decline in overall consumption of non-cigarette smoking.   The CDC found that sharp increases in total adult consumption of pipe tobacco (used for roll-your-own cigarettes) and cigarette-like cigars since 2008 have offset declines in total cigarette consumption.

From 2000 to 2011, the largest increases were in consumption of pipe tobacco (nearly 500 percent) and large cigars (over 200 percent).  The increase in cigars was due largely to tobacco manufacturers adding weight to many small cigars so they can be classified as large cigars and avoid higher taxes and regulation, while at the same time retaining a size and shape very similar to cigarettes.

The lower prices of these non-cigarette tobacco products are particularly appealing to young people.  And there is evidence that the lower prices are driving minors to non-cigarette tobacco.   A recent CDC report found that 37 percent of male high school seniors use some form of tobacco.

The increased popularity of loose pipe tobacco and of the cigarette-like large cigars seems to be directly related to a 2009 increase in the federal tobacco excise tax, which made pipe tobacco far less expensive than roll-your-own tobacco, and large cigars less heavily taxed than small cigars and cigarettes.  Lower taxes and thus prices, helped boost sales

In addition, non-cigarette tobacco products are less regulated.  The Food and Drug Administration regulations that bar adding flavoring to tobacco and using labels like “light” or “low tar” do not apply to cigars and pipe tobacco.

The federal government’s Government Accountability Office has recommended changing the federal tobacco excise taxes to eliminate the differential taxation.

That’s a good idea.

In New York State, Governor Cuomo proposed to do that in his state budget proposal earlier this year.  His budget included a tobacco tax parity proposal that would have eliminated the tax difference between cigarettes and other tobacco products.  The Assembly agreed, but the Senate passed a slightly different version of the tax proposal.

Normally, minor differences are negotiated and resolved.  But not this time.  In fact, the final budget agreement did not include any changes to the tax rates for non-cigarette tobacco products.

No change, nothing, nada, zilch.

Why?  Since New York’s budget discussions are held in secret it is, of course, impossible to know unless one of the parties lets the public know.

What we do know, is that former U.S. Senator Alfonse D’Amato’s lobbying firm was hired by the “roll your own” cigarette manufacturers right after the governor unveiled his proposal in January.  They were paid $10,000 per month to block the governor’s proposal.

After all of the budget action, it ended up that nothing happened and the “roll your own” industry – as well as the cigar industry – escaped the additional tax.

Big tobacco won a big one.

Of course this victory occurred before the CDC report.   Maybe this information will help spark renewed interest in the issue.

We hear a lot about how Albany has changed.  And to a large extent that is true.  But powerful special interests still have a dominant role in the development of policy.  In this case, Big Tobacco’s win could lead to more addiction and disease in New York.  The governor needs to go after that issue again and win.

Blair Horner is the Vice President for Advocacy for the American Cancer Society, Eastern Division. His commentary does not necessarily reflect the views of the American Cancer Society.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.