Minnesotans support taxing smokers to close budget gap

If the stress from thinking about Minnesota's budget deficit makes you think about lighting up a smoke, think again. Nearly 60 percent of Minnesotans would support increasing cigarette state taxes on tobacco to help solve the state's looming $5 billion budget deficit.

Those respondents supporting a tax increase weren't thinking in small numbers: 70 percent of those who favored an increase would approve of raising cigarette prices by up to $1.50.

The Minnesota Department of Revenue projected that an increase of $1.50 per pack would add $400 million to state revenue over the next biennium. That calculation might be a bit rushed, as only around 40 percent of all respondents favored an increase that big. Still, the numbers look bleak for smokers.

The survey of 625 Minnesota residents was conducted earlier this month, as the threat of a state government shutdown became more and more likely each day. The survey's sponsor, Raise it for Health, is a single-issue advocacy group funded by health care providers, including Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, and nonprofits like the American Cancer Society.

Minnesota's smoking habits curbed severely in the last decade, from 22 percent of the state smoking in 1999 down to 16 percent in 2010. That decline was a decisive factor in getting the Twin Cities named the healthiest metro in the country in May. But as the number of smokers dropped, smokeless tobacco became more popular.

"Cheap tobacco products aren't good for anyone, and higher tobacco prices are a proven and effective way to keep youth from ever starting to smoke and to make it easier for more people to quit," says Matt Schaefer, the American Cancer Society's lobbyist.

But what Raise it for Health didn't mention is that the percentage in favor of an increase is on the way down. A March 2009 survey by ClearWay Minnesota, an anti-tobacco nonprofit which is also a part of Raise it for Health, found that 72 percent of Minnesotans would support increased taxes on tobaccco.

Maybe it's a difference in phrasing: in the 2009 survey, more than half of those advocating an price increase said they'd do so to encourage quitting, and to prevent young people from smoking. This time around, when the increase was framed as a partial solution to the state's enormous budget deficit, the number was less than 60 percent.

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