Legislative committee endorses tobacco tax
December 24, 2020
CHEYENNE – State lawmakers, during a meeting Friday, narrowly advanced a measure to increase excise taxes on cigarettes and moist tobacco snuff, marking one of the only revenue-raising measures to be advanced by a legislative committee during interim meetings this year.
The bill, if approved by the Legislature during its regular session next year, would raise the tax on cigarette packs from 60 cents to 84 cents, keeping with inflation since the last time a cigarette tax increase was passed in the state in 2003.
It would also increase the tax on moist tobacco snuff from 60 cents per ounce to 72 cents.
At 60 cents per pack, Wyoming’s current cigarette tax rate ranks among the lowest ten states in the country, according to a 2019 report from the Tax Foundation. Increasing the tax to 84 cents per pack would place Wyoming in line with Colorado’s current rate, which ranks 38th nationwide.
While the legislation is expected to raise roughly $6 million annually for the state’s general fund, its proponents were not solely focused on the revenue possibilities, instead emphasizing the potential health benefits that could come by deterring people from smoking.
Jan Cartwright, executive director of the Wyoming Primary Care Association, said an increase in cigarette taxes can result in reduced youth smoking, and she encouraged the committee to advance an increase higher than the 24-cent jump being proposed.
“If the goal is to decrease tobacco use, then every 10-cent increase that this committee would approve will stop kids from using tobacco and becoming addicted,” Cartwright said. “If the goal is to raise revenue, why not raise the tax to the amount of Utah or Montana at $1.70 a pack? … If you’re going to go through this effort to raise it, (do it) to a rate that’s effective.”
Brittany Wardle, the community prevention project director for Cheyenne Regional Medical Center, noted tobacco smoking comes at a hefty cost to public health services in Wyoming.
“Our annual health care costs directly caused by smoking are $258 million. Medicaid bears a cost of smoking over $14 million, and we see smoking caused productivity losses of over $200 million,” Wardle said. “So this is definitely something that impacts our costs here in Wyoming, and we do know that cigarette tax increases work best in reducing smoking among youth, lower-income smokers and pregnant women.”
However, others were less confident in the cigarette tax increase leading to long-term changes in behavior.
Monika Leininger, an organizer with the Powder River Basin Resource Council, told the committee that her group had concerns about the potentially regressive nature of the tax, pointing to a public health study that found lower-income smokers often struggle to quit despite any tax increases.
The concern was shared by Wyoming Taxpayers Association executive director Ashley Harpstreith, whose group opposed the proposal.
Others opposed to the measure argued Wyoming’s low rates could soon be attractive in comparison to neighboring states. Mark Larson, executive vice director of the Wyoming Petroleum Marketers Association and Convenience Store Association, noted Colorado will soon be raising its cigarette tax to $1.94 per pack.
“We are thinking that that’s going to be a good windfall for Wyoming,” Larson said. “Those sales, if we decide to go to 84 cents, are going to be impacted.”
Without much discussion following public comment, the committee then advanced the bill by an 8-6 vote, meaning it will be sponsored for the Legislature’s session at some point next year.