To the Editor:
Given current revenue estimates showing Rhode Island has a $30 million deficit, there is one simple action state lawmakers could take that would close half that budget gap, while also protecting children, lowering Rhode Island health care costs and preventing death: raise the state tobacco tax.
Tobacco-caused health care costs cripple Rhode Island’s economy with over a half-billion dollars each year going towards smoking-caused health care expenditures, including $179 million in state Medicaid. That’s a tax burden of approximately $721 per Rhode Island household per year. You would think that state lawmakers would be doing everything possible to reduce smoking to reduce this huge burden on RI taxpayers, but in fact they have cut the RI Health Department’s funding for inexpensive services that assist smokers to quit. Despite studies showing that over 80 percent of smokers want to quit, the RI QuitLine lacks a marketing budget to reach smokers, and the effective doctor-referral QuitWorks program ran out of funding and ended a few months ago.
High tobacco excise taxes are one of the most effective ways to reduce tobacco use, especially among price sensitive youth. The increased cost creates an incentive for current smokers to quit and for youth to not start. Each year, more than 1,600 adults die from tobacco use in Rhode Island, while 1,300 youth under age 18 begin. We need to stop this adult-smoker-death-and-youth-smoker-replacement cycle of tobacco use in our state.
According to the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, “Every 10 percent increase in the real price of cigarettes reduces overall cigarette consumption by approximately three to five percent, reduces the number of young adult smokers by 3.5 percent, and reduces the number of kids who smoke by six or seven percent.”
A 90-cent increase to the Rhode Island tobacco tax would achieve hitting this 10 percent per pack price increase. This tax increase will motivate 3,700 Rhode Islanders to quit smoking and will stop 2,900 kids from ever becoming addicted to tobacco products. This move would also create significant new revenues for our state – $15.59 million in new revenue each year for Rhode Island.
Now is the time to pass a 90-cent increase to the RI tobacco tax for the health and well being of our children, our citizens and our economy. There are currently two bills in the General Assembly that would make this happen. I encourage lawmakers and citizens to support the passage of HB5806 sponsored by Representative Art Handy of Cranston, and SB247 sponsored by Senator Juan Pichardo of Providence.
It’s a simple action to protect our youth, save lives, plug the budget deficit and provide the money to fund the smoking cessation services we need to save even more lives.
Cranston Substance Abuse Task Force