Revenue loss threatens bill that raises legal tobacco age
By CORY DAWSON
Mar. 21, 2017
MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) — The future of a Vermont measure that would raise the legal age for selling and using tobacco to 21 could be hampered by potential loss of tax revenue.
A legislative analysis released Tuesday showed that Vermont could lose more than $2 million over the next three years if the measure passes.
Advocates for the bill say the loss would be more than made up for in the long run.
"My concern is that people are worried about the short-term revenue loss and not looking at the long-term health care savings and general health improvement," said Democratic Sen. Alison Clarkson, the lead sponsor of the bill.
Democrats in the Senate gave the bill a lukewarm reception at a caucus meeting Tuesday afternoon. They hold a supermajority in the Senate so they could pass the bill if everyone in the party is on board.
Lawmakers have often cited data from the National Academy of Medicine, which found that over time a higher smoking age would reduce deaths from tobacco-related causes by about 10 percent.
"Basically, this bill would save lives," said Democratic Rep. Debbie Ingram.
Vermont spends $348 million yearly on direct medical costs for tobacco-related illnesses, Ingram said.
The state would no doubt save money in the long run on health care costs, state financial analyst Nolan Langweil told the Senate Committee on Health and Welfare.
Finding out exactly how much money would be saved is difficult to quantify, Langweil said.
Two other states, Hawaii and California, and over 200 cities and towns have raised the legal age for buying and using tobacco to 21, according to a tally from the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. Several other states, such as Massachusetts and Connecticut, are considering the measure this year, said lobbyist John Hollar.
Retailers could lose $2.5 million in revenue over the next three years under the bill, said Erin Sigrist, president of the Vermont Retailers and Grocers Association. Sigrist said her organization is against the bill from a purely financial standpoint.
"That money pays for employees to work and pays to keep products on the shelf, and, you know, that's our everyday livelihood," Sigrist said.
Lawmakers are also considering changing the law to exempt people who are 18 by the time the bill is effective in July 2017. That change would allow more people to buy tobacco products in the short term and slightly lessen the impact on tax revenue, according to the legislative analysis.
Ingram said another route to gain back lost revenue and ease the lawmakers' concerns would be to raise the cigarette tax by 4 cents. Vermont's current tax on a pack of cigarettes is $3.08.
"Perhaps that will seem like a cleaner solution for people," Ingram said after the caucus meeting.
The Senate Health and Welfare Committee will discuss the tax increase and exemptions for 18-year-olds Wednesday, Ingram said.
This story has been corrected to show the financial analysis was released Tuesday, not Wednesday.