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Omdahl: What Measure 4’s really about

By Staff | Oct 14, 2016

Measure 4 on the November ballot proposing to raise the tobacco tax is not about money. It’s about the 1,000 North Dakotans who die every year from the use of tobacco. And it’s about the thousands of others who linger in grief and pain for weeks and months.

North Dakota’s present tax of 44 cents is among the lowest in the nation. The measure would raise the tax to $2.20 a pack, not to generate revenue but to discourage smoking.

Big tobacco has been spending millions to divert public attention away from their cancer-inducing products and to keep voters from realizing that this is not about the money. It’s about their profits at the expense of North Dakota lives.

As a diversion from the real issue, Big Tobacco has been complaining about how the $70 million in revenue will be spent. In reality, they don’t care a whit about how the money will be spent. If all of the money went to starving children, they would still oppose the tax.

The $70 million is only one-fourth of the $330 million that tobacco addiction is costing North Dakotans. The tax will recover only a fraction of that cost. The pain and grief are unquantifiable.

They talk about the number of pages involved in the measure. Here again, if the measure consisted of only one simple page, Big Tobacco would oppose it. And after they complain about the length of the measure, they turn around and fault the spending plan because it lacks details.

Hopefully, the tax will generate less and less revenue through the months ahead. That would tell us that smokers are kicking Big Tobacco right in the profits. In the interim, however, the revenue has to go somewhere and where better than to support veterans and health.

According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control, smoking by North Dakota youth between age of 12 and 17 is above the national average. If the threat of cancer and OCPD doesn’t dissuade them from smoking, perhaps a tax of $2.20 would be convincing.

Another lament in this campaign has produced crocodile tears for the low-income smokers. The assumption is that low-income folks will keep smoking, thereby perpetuating an unfair tax on the poor. It is a tax of choice. They do not have to choose to continue smoking.

While weeping for the low-income smokers, we need to keep in mind that these are also the folks who are disproportionately uninsured and have no resources to pay the hospitals and care providers. They become Medicaid-dependent.

Cancer is not a quick death; many victims linger for months and years, with millions of dollars paid by taxpayers or absorbed by hospitals who must recover losses by handing higher bills to paying customers.

Research indicates that higher taxes reduce tobacco consumption but that only happens when the increases are significant. Research also shows that for every 10 percent increase in the tax there will be a decline of three to seven percent in the number of smokers.

Measure 4 is proposing an increase of $1.76, four times the present tax rate, so we should expect a cigarette consumption decline of around 20 percent. The tobacco companies can disregard the moral issues involved in promoting their addictive drug by claiming a fiduciary responsibility to stockholders. Well, North Dakotans are not obligated to sacrifice their values for the profit of tobacco companies. Our fiduciary responsibility is to the lives of our people.

Measure 4 is not about money. It is about our belief that North Dakota lives matter.

Omdahl is a former lieutenant governor and former political science professor at UND.

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