BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A House panel Monday rejected a bid to raise Idaho’s cigarette tax by $1.25 per pack, with Republican foes branding health groups’ efforts to raise barriers to teen smoking as nothing more than social engineering.
As a consequence, Idaho’s 57 cent per pack tax will remain the lowest of surrounding states.
The Revenue and Taxation Committee’s vote against holding a full public hearing was 11-5, easily defeating the bill sponsored by groups including the American Lung Association and American Cancer Society.
Though no public testimony was taken during the hearing, there were plenty of lobbyists in the room, including from health groups that favor raising Idaho’s tax and convenience store representatives who contend that hiking costs of cigarettes would hurt their businesses.
Republican Reps. Lenore Barrett, of Challis, and Vito Barbieri, of Dalton Gardens, argued that cajoling people to quit by boosting a legal product’s cost wasn’t acceptable.
“This is the most blatant case of social engineering I have ever seen,” said Barrett. “It’s not the proper role of government to do social engineering through tax policy.”
Others, including Rep. Del Raybould, R-Rexburg, feared hiking the cigarette tax could put undue hardship on low-wage earners who would continue to smoke and have less money for their children.
Rep. Dick Harwood, R-St. Maries, doubted that smoking was really that harmful to people’s health, citing how his own mother smoked for about 82 years.
“Just because you smoke doesn’t mean you are going to be ill,” Harwood said.
Washington’s per-pack tax is just over $3, Utah and Montana levy a $1.70 surcharge, Oregon charges $1.18 and Nevada’s tax is 80 cents. Wyoming’s is 60 cents.
Virginia has the lowest tax in the country, at just 30 cents per pack. New York has the highest, at $4.35.
Heidi Low, the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, told lawmakers that statistics indicate that about 12,400 Idaho teens would never begin smoking and another 9,400 other smokers would quit if they had to pay an extra $1.25 per pack for the privilege.
“It’s been demonstrated again and again that higher cigarette prices reduce teen smoking,” Low told lawmakers.
But conservative lawmakers’ angst over new taxes easily overpowered counterarguments that thousands fewer teens would pick up the habit, thousands more smokers would quit and Idaho would have $50 million in new revenue to help address Medicaid costs from tobacco-related illness.
Tobacco use costs Idaho $319 million a year in health care related costs, with $83 million of that being borne by taxpayer-funded Medicaid, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Tax revenue raised by the bill would be dedicated to covering smoking-related health care costs.
“Call it ‘social engineering’ if you will,” said Rep. Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, the bill’s sponsor. “I call it just good sense.”
Apart from Democrats, however, Lake was joined by just two other Republicans who supported holding a public hearing: Reps. Ken Roberts, of Donnelly, and Leon Smith, of Twin Falls.
Monday’s debate, which lasted less than an hour, was a long time coming.
Democrats sought unsuccessfully last year to win a similar meeting and spent several days forcing Republicans to read bills in their entirety to protest their pleas being ignored.