Higher cigarette tax pitched for anti-tobacco effort
Madison - Reeling from a substantial budget cut, anti-tobacco forces are clinging to the hope that lawmakers will restore some funding to the fledgling state Tobacco Control Board, possibly by raising the cigarette tax.
Sen. Judy Robson (D-Beloit) said raising the cigarette tax, now 59 cents per pack, might be the preferred solution, given the state's dire financial straits. Besides providing much-needed funds, she said, it would discourage smoking, especially among teenagers.
Carrie Sullivan of SmokeFree Wisconsin shared Robson's enthusiasm for raising the tax. But Sullivan said the state already had plenty of funds available for prevention efforts, if only lawmakers would stop squandering the tobacco settlement money on other things.
Sullivan said a survey conducted for SmokeFree Wisconsin showed that only one in four residents favor trading $5.9 billion in tobacco settlement payments over 25 years for $1.3 billion now, a plan that Gov. Scott McCallum proposed in his budget.
The random poll of 500 residents last week also showed 68% of likely voters support raising the cigarette tax of 59 cents per pack by 41 cents to a full $1, Sullivan said.
During their work on McCallum's budget last week, the Joint Finance Committee slashed the Tobacco Control Board's budget by a third, cutting $12 million from the $33.2 million McCallum proposed for anti-tobacco efforts the next two years.
The committee's 13-3 vote on the board's budget came one day after lawmakers learned the state faced a $761 million funding gap because of the sagging economy and lagging tax collections.
On Friday, McCallum cited the dangers of smoking and said he proposed $33 million in funding for good reason. But when asked about raising the cigarette tax, the governor would not say whether he supported doing so, saying it was too early in the budget process to make such a commitment.
"There's a long ways to go in the budget. It's premature to say right now," the Republican governor said during a brief interview.
Board set anti-smoking goals
In full operation for less than a year, the board has set a series of goals to meet by 2005: reduce tobacco use among teenagers by 20%; reduce tobacco use among adults by the same percentage; get 100 municipalities to adopt smoke-free restaurant ordinances; and work to make nearly all workplaces smoke free.
Last August, the board awarded $18.2 million in grants. Before the finance committee acted, David Gundersen, the board's executive director, told lawmakers that McCallum's proposed budget was the minimum needed to meet those goals.
If the finance committee's action stands, Gundersen said, the board would have $15 million in grant money to award in the fiscal year starting July 1, and another $15 million next year. Because it already has made commitments to spend $9 million from July to December, the board had $6 million remaining and of that, only $2.5 million is discretionary because the committee designated $3.5 million for certain programs.
"It creates a lot of challenges," Gundersen said. "It's going to cause the board to revisit its entire strategic plan and have to restructure what we've done for Wisconsin."
Gundersen said the board had developed a comprehensive plan to prevent youths from smoking, as well as help adults kick the habit.
Of the grants awarded thus far, $6.5 million was for a media campaign to counter marketing by cigarette companies. He said the board recently launched a tobacco Quit Line, which received 1,400 calls in its first two weeks, more than 80% of them from smokers who wanted help in ending their addiction.
"The question is, 'What's going to get cut? You going to cut the youth or the Quit Line?' Our response is, none of the above," Gundersen said. "If you're going to be effective, you have to have a comprehensive program."
Robson described the cut as devastating to the program.
"The patient is not dead, the patient is critically ill and on a respirator," said Robson, a registered nurse. "But I'm not giving up. I'm a consummate optimist."
Raising the cigarette tax could be the solution, Robson said.
"There is a win-win here, too," Robson said. "If the cigarette tax goes up, kids are price sensitive. If it gets too high, they can't afford to smoke."
Gundersen said tobacco consumption decreased substantially when tobacco companies increased the price of cigarettes by 43 cents after the multistate tobacco settlement.
"The cigarette tax is a great solution," Sullivan said. "It raises revenue, which obviously the state needs right now, and it will decrease consumption. So, less people will be using cigarettes, and that's especially true of young people."
Burke vows fight
Sen. Brian Burke (D-Milwaukee), co-chairman of the finance committee, tried to keep the cut to a minimum. When that failed on an 8-8 party-line vote, Rep. John Gard (R-Peshtigo), the other co-chairman, won approval of the $12 million cut. Prior to the meeting, he warned that the board's entire budget was at risk.
"I believe in full funding and will fight to get it back," Burke said. "Anything less is a victory for big tobacco. We need to prevent the next generation of smokers. A shortsighted cut now merely shifts costs to the future, costs measured in lives, not just dollars."
However, Gard said the board and anti-tobacco forces should expect no more than what the finance committee approved.
"This is a deal that we reached between the houses," Gard said of the compromise he offered with Sen. Russ Decker (D-Schofield).
"I think they are reaching when they use words like 'devastating to the program,' " Gard said. "You can still run a great program. Other states are doing it at similar levels, and we can do it here."