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Tobacco tax

Jess Hoven smokes a cigarette while playing a game of pool with friends in December 2013 at Moonlight Liquors and Lounge in Casper.

CHEYENNE – State lawmakers are unlikely to change the state’s tobacco taxes – at least for the time being.

The Joint Revenue Interim Committee decided Friday not to sponsor a bill for the upcoming legislative session to raise the taxes.

The panel took no action after several health advocates urged the lawmakers to more than double the state’s current 60-cents-per-pack tax.

Dr. Robert Monger, the chief of staff for Cheyenne Regional Medical Center, who also was representing the Wyoming Medical Society, told the panel that increasing the taxes would encourage adults to quit and prevent teenagers from taking up the habit.

“I fully support and value our shared Wyoming values of smaller government, low taxes and personal freedoms,” he said. “But I think it’s a legitimate goal for governments to prevent minors from taking up smoking, and I encourage you to raise the tax to help protect Wyoming teenagers.”

Monger was joined by representatives from the American Cancer Society, American Heart Association and Wyoming Nurses Association in calling for a $1-per-pack increase in the cigarette tax.

In addition to generating more revenue, they said it would reduce state Medicaid costs that are used to treat smoking-related illnesses.

Wyoming’s 60-cent tax on a pack of cigarettes is among the lowest in the country. Advocates for raising the tax said increasing it by a dollar would bring it nearly in line with the national average.

The Legislature has defeated several proposals in recent years to raise the tax. This includes a bill to raise the tax to $1.25 per pack that was introduced, but failed to make it out of committee, during this year’s legislative session.

But news that the state’s tobacco settlement account is expected to face a $12 million budget shortfall for the next two-year budget cycle prompted new calls for lawmakers to look at increasing the taxes.

The account generates interest from a multi-state settlement with tobacco companies in the late 1990s. That money is used to help pay for some of the state’s substance-abuse and prevention programs.

Without raising taxes or finding money from other sources, lawmakers will be forced to cut some of those programs.

But several lawmakers were unconvinced that raising the tax would significantly help the budget situation or convince smokers to quit.

Rep. Roy Edwards, R-Gillette, said increasing the tax would just expand the black market by persuading people to travel to other states or to American Indian reservations to get cheaper cigarettes.

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“What you think you are going to get won’t happen, or it will be a lot less, because people find other avenues,” he said. “It’s no different than with alcohol. You can ban it, but people who are going to use it are going to use it.”

Rep. Mark Jennings, R-Sheridan, added this could lead the government to tax other things that contribute to health problems.

“Where do we go next?” he asked. “Do we say there is overeating that creates all kinds of medical problems, so do we raise a dollar on hamburgers and fries?”

Sen. Ray Peterson, R-Cowley, is the co-chairman of the Joint Revenue Interim Committee. He said no formal vote was taken on the proposal to increase the taxes because the issue came to the committee on its final meeting of the interim session. But he and others suggested the Legislature make the issue an interim topic that would be studied after next year’s legislative session.

“We are going to have to talk about this,” he said.

In a straw poll, about half the committee supported making it an interim topic. But that decision will ultimately be made by legislative leaders on the Management Council at the close of next year’s session.

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