PHOENIX — With tobacco use on the rise, a lawmaker and the American Cancer Society want to ask voters to sharply increase the taxes smokers pay on cigarettes and similar products they buy.
Under their plan, the money raised would help put Arizonans through college.
Current law puts a $2-a-pack tax on cigarettes. Senate Concurrent Resolution 1026 would add $1.50 on top of that.
The proposal by Sen. Heather Carter, R-Cave Creek also would increase similar taxes on cigars, chewing tobacco and such products.
Would for first time tax vaping
And it would, for the first time, impose a levy on vaping products, the device and the refills, equal to 73 percent of the wholesale price.
For the proposal to take effect, the Legislature would have to agree to put it on the 2020 ballot and voters would have to approve it.
Putting it on the ballot would effectively give the power to the approximately 85 percent of Arizonans who do not smoke and who would not be affected financially, acknowledged Brian Hummell, lobbyist for the Cancer Society. But he said the move makes sense from a public health perspective.
Hummell said higher taxes, especially when combined with anti-tobacco and cessation programs, are the most effective at getting smokers to quit as well as keeping people, particularly teens, from starting to smoke in the first place.
The last voter-approved tax increase a dozen years ago brought the levy to $2 a pack. And Hummell said that worked — at least for awhile.
“We were at 14 percent,” he said of the number of adults who smoked, a figure he said remained flat for years. “Now we’re at 15.7 percent over the last two years.”
Pricing teens “out of the market”
The increase in admitted tobacco use may not be specifically due to cigarettes, Hummell acknowledged; it may include adults who use vaping products.
But whatever the method of using tobacco, he said, the goal remains the same: To reduce use.
Hummell contends that a $1.50-a-pack increase will prevent nearly 27,000 teens who turn 18 from starting to smoke in the first place. Other teens, faced with a price hike, will give up the habit, he said.
“So we’re basically pricing these people out of the market,” Hummell said.
He said Arizona’s $2 tax rate already is higher than that in all but 15 other states. Hummell figures the increase to $3.50, if approved, would put Arizona somewhere in the Top 10.
College scholarships planned
The other half of the proposal is to use the tax to make college more affordable.
Carter essentially said it’s a marriage of convenience. At one time, the Arizona Board of Regents gave out scholarships to any student who graduated in the top quarter of his or her class, she said. That was later curbed to the top 10 percent.
Then, when the state started to use the AIMS test as a graduation requirement, students whose scores were at or near the top were given partial scholarships. The test, Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards, is no longer linked to graduation and Carter said those funds, too, have dried up.
Put simply, Carter said she was looking for a dedicated source of dollars to devote to scholarships at the state’s three universities. And this levy would raise an extra $85 million a year.
“What I’m trying to do is put two ideas that have merit together,” she said.
Her measure would earmark the cash for the Board of Regents to award a scholarship to Arizona residents who have obtained grades of A or B in each academic course required for graduation.
Carter conceded that still leaves a question of whether it is fair to tax smokers — and only smokers — to help put students through college, rather than using a broader tax.
In case her colleagues aren’t OK with that, Carter has separately introduced Senate Bill 1523, which would require the state to use existing tax revenues, rather than a higher tobacco tax, to fund the same scholarships for top students.
Hummell, for his part, said he and his organization have no qualms about taxing tobacco smokers to make college more affordable.