House debates raising state cigarette tax

by Beacon Staff • February 27, 2008

Massachusetts Speaker of the House Salvatore DiMasi proposed a $1 increase in the state's cigarette tax at a press conference earlier this month.,The hassle of being a smoker at Emerson College may soon be more than standing 25 feet away from a dormitory entrance.

Massachusetts Speaker of the House Salvatore DiMasi proposed a $1 increase in the state's cigarette tax at a press conference earlier this month.

The estimated $154 million revenue from the tax would go to health care programs and would potentially help pay for a law passed in July 2007 which requires all Massachusetts citizens to secure health insurance, according to DiMasi's spokesman Dave Guarino.

The proposal is part of a larger piece of legislation planned to help balance the state's budget.

"Based on projections of the spending we need to do and keep programs running at current revenues, there's a [deficit] of $1.3 billion," Guarino said.

The Massachusetts cigarette tax is currently $1.51 per pack. A $1 increase would make it the second highest such tax in the country, behind New Jersey's $2.58.

Junior Jon Meyer said the tax hike, which is scheduled for debate in the House in April, wouldn't bother him.

"The smoker in me says, 'No, don't tax my precious cigarettes,'" the writing, literature and publishing major said. "The conscientious citizen in me says, 'I guess if you're going to tax something, you might as well tax a common vice.'"

Nationwide, health advocacy groups have supported states increasing their taxes on cigarettes.

Kevin O'Flaherty, northeast advocacy director for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said the campaign would provide resources, research and endorsements to the state of Massachusetts which, O'Flaherty said, used to have one of the strongest anti-tobacco programs in the country.

"In the end, we would encourage the state to increase funds for tobacco control programs in order to maximize returns on the effort," O'Flaherty said.

In 1998, a study published in the American Journal of Public Health reported the results of a state-wide phone survey gauging Massachusetts smokers' reaction to a 25-cent tax hike imposed in 1993.

Of the 1,793 adults surveyed, 3.5 percent reported having stopped smoking, 35 percent had considered quitting and 19 percent had tried to save money by smoking less or switching brands.

Dr. Lois Biener, senior research fellow at the Center for Survey Research at University of Massachusetts, Boston, was one of the authors of the study.

According to another 1993 survey by Biener of both smokers and non-smokers, 81 percent of respondents supported another 25-cent increase if the money were designated for tobacco prevention programs while 74 percent said they would support the hike if it were used for other health programs.

Support dropped to 31 percent if the money were not ear marked for any particular initiative.

Like those in the last category, sophomore Julia Merchant said she'd support using the money for tobacco prevention programs despite being a smoker.

"I'm not a fan of the government taking my money and using it for unspecified things which I may or may not agree with," the writing, literature and publishing major said.

According to a report on the campaign's Web site, tobacco program funding in Massachusetts dropped from a $48 million high in fiscal year 2002 to a $2.5 million low in fiscal year 2003 under former Gov. Mitt Romney.

Currently, $12.8 million have been allocated for tobacco prevention programs.

Writing, literature and publishing major Erin Berkowitz said the tax won't change anything for her.

At home in Florida, Berkowitz said she pays $3.85 per pack of Natural American Spirits, but pays $6.15 per pack in Boston.

The sophomore said, "I'll just keep buying the same amount of cigarettes and have less money."