, Newburyport, MA

January 29, 2013

State caught in tobacco tax shell game

Newburyport Daily News

---- — As taxpayers, we are often suckered by political promises that this tax or that tax will be devoted entirely to pay for some worthy cause — education, fixing roads or some other popular cause.

But too often, after the spotlight dims, the true nature of this age-old money grab becomes apparent.

Remember how we were promised that all the money states reaped from Big Tobacco was going to be targeted toward anti-smoking advertising, quit-smoking hotlines and similar treatment programs? Aren’t tobacco taxes supposed to support similar measures? That’s surely the pitch we get every time legislators try to raise them.

The New England Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit investigative reporting newsroom based at Boston University, has found that less than 1 percent of the tobacco money coming to Massachusetts is used to support anti-smoking efforts. The rest — 99 percent — goes into the general fund, to be spent however the state pleases.

We’re talking serious money here. Massachusetts got $254 million in tobacco settlement money in 2012 and raked in $561 million in tobacco taxes. Yet of that $815 million, the state will spend just $4.2 million in 2013 on smoking cessation and prevention programs, NECIR’s Beverly Ford reported.

And the need is great. Ford reports Centers for Disease Control and Prevention figures that show more than 9,000 Massachusetts residents die annually from smoking-related diseases and yearly health care costs associated with treating tobacco-related illnesses in the state have risen to $3.9 billion.

The CDC estimates that it would take $90 million to fully fund cessation and prevention efforts in Massachusetts. The $4.2 million the state is spending is just 4.6 percent of what’s needed to meet the CDC standard.

“Major components of the program have gone unfunded,” Dr. Lois Keithly, director of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health’s Tobacco Cessation and Prevention Program, told Ford. Keithly has seen her budget slashed by $50 million from a peak of $54.3 million in 2000.

Gov. Deval Patrick in his budget message called for increasing the state’s cigarette tax by $1 per pack. The tax hike would raise $118.5 million annually — all of which would go into the general fund. Patrick also hopes to reap another $18.54 million from raising taxes on other tobacco products.

So clearly, the state’s interest is not getting smokers to quit. The state is interested in making as much money as it can from smokers’ addiction to tobacco.

This happens again and again. The gas tax was supposed to fund road maintenance and improvements. It doesn’t. Tolls on the Massachusetts Turnpike were supposed to pay for its construction. The construction bonds have been paid off, yet the tolls remain.

Now, Gov. Patrick wants to raise the state income tax to 6.25 percent while cutting the sales tax to 4.5 percent, for a net gain of $1.9 billion in annual revenues. This money, the governor says, will be dedicated to transportation improvements and education. It would be refreshing it that were true, but history tells us it isn’t.

When a politician begins to spin a tale about how new “investments” are needed and will be “targeted” to one specific and noble cause, watch your wallets. They’re about to be lifted.