A better way to reduce tobacco use in Minnesota

Gov. Mark Dayton’s office released some startling numbers involving tobacco use in Minnesota. It was part of a campaign to urge the Republican Legislative leaders to reverse the tax cuts for tobacco.

According to Dayton’s release, the Minnesota Department of Health reports 6,300 Minnesotans die every year due to smoking. Tobacco kills more Minnesotans than alcohol, homicides, car accidents, AIDS, illegal drugs and suicides combined. Smoking also causes more than $3.2 billion in medical costs annually in Minnesota. That is about $593 million each year in higher medical costs for every man, woman and child in Minnesota. It also stated that 580,000 Minnesotans, roughly 14.4 percent of the state’s population, still smoke.

Dayton is not the only politician in the state seeking to reduce tobacco use in Minnesota. The city of Edina recently raised the legal age to buy tobacco products from 18 to 21. The ordinance applies to all tobacco related products, including chewing tobacco and e-cigarettes.

A push is also underway for a statewide age increase. A bill was introduced during the last Legislative session, but there wasn’t enough time for it to advance. However, there might be enough support for such a bill to pass in the future. A 2015 federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report claims three out of four Americans favor raising the minimum age of sale for tobacco products to 21.

One recent study published in Minnesota Medicine said raising the legal age would reduce the number of young smokers in Minnesota by 30,000. So raising the legal age appears to be logical.

But there is another side to this. And this argument was presented by the governor.

“I support the goal of reducing smoking by young Minnesotans,” he said. “However, people who are 18, 19 and 20 years old are legally adults and should generally be allowed to make the same personal decisions as older adults.”

Which then brings us back to Dayton calling on the Legislature to reverse the tobacco tax reduction during a possible special session.

Dayton estimates that the Legislature’s tax breaks will cost the state $300 million over the next 10 years. He also claims that since signing the tobacco increases in 2013, the smoking rate among 11th-grade students in Minnesota declined by one-third. He also claims the adult smoking rate in Minnesota has declined by 10 percent. A Minnesota Department of Health study was cited that claims 63 percent of smokers who quit last year said that the high prices influenced their smoking behaviors.

There’s no doubt that cost has an effect on smoking behaviors. So do laws that raises the legal age.

However, anytime you take rights away from citizens, no matter the age, it starts that journey down that slippery slope of what is next.

Raising taxes provides resources to combat the problem and cover some of the costs that tobacco causes. Some of the monies collected from increased taxes should be used to combat the problem by raising awareness and offset health care costs paid by taxpayers.

For fiscal year 2015, the Minnesota Department of Revenue reported collections from the two excise taxes and the sales tax on cigarettes to be $659.9 million. Revenues from the tobacco products tax are deposited in the general fund. Each fiscal year, cigarette tax revenues of $22.25 million go to fund the Academic Health Center, $3.94 million to the medical education and research account and the rest goes into the state general fund.

The Academic Health Center at the University of Minnesota is home to six colleges and schools and several AHC-wide centers addressing critical health issues.

Tobacco is one problem where increased taxes might be a better solution than completely taking rights away.