Fighting Senseless Sin Taxes in Maryland: “There’s good reason for lower taxes on smokeless tobacco”

My letter to the editor in The Baltimore Sun challenges the paper’s editorial support for a proposal to raise sin-taxes on smokeless tobacco to the same (nearly confiscatory) rate as on cigarettes, which are far more harmful.

I write, Your editorial “The ‘other’ tobacco tax” (Jan. 19) is based on either a basic misunderstanding of how sin taxes are meant to work or a failure to appreciate that cigarettes are by far the most dangerous form of tobacco use.

Sin taxes are a bad idea. But if the underlying purpose of a sin tax is to discourage risky behavior, the tax rate on each product ought to be in line with the risk of that behavior.

But Gov.Martin O’Malley’s plan to increase sin taxes on smokeless tobacco and cigars, in order to level the playing field with cigarettes, ignores the established science that cigarettes are by far the most dangerous way to use tobacco.

Cigarettes, which are burned and inhaled, are far more dangerous than smokeless tobacco, which experts estimate as 99 percent less harmful than smoking.

Cigars, which are more dangerous than smokeless products simply because they burn the tobacco, are generally used far less frequently than cigarettes and are thus responsible for fewer health problems.

Increasing revenues, especially in difficult financial times, is a temptation few lawmakers can resist. But until sin taxes are done away with, they should at least be applied based on rationality and science.

Jeff Stier, Washington

The writer is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.

I was also pleased to see an excellent letter by Dr. Brad Rodu, endowed chair of tobacco harm reduction research at the University of Louisville’s James Graham Brown Cancer Center. Dr. Rodu wrote,

All tobacco is not equally harmful

Your recent editorial endorsed a tax increase on tobacco products other than cigarettes, but it was based on some sweeping statements that are not scientifically accurate or credible (“The ‘other’ tobacco tax,” Jan 20).

You stated: “Tobacco is linked to an estimated 6,861 deaths in Maryland each year … the American Lung Association reports.” The Lung Association actually reported that smoking caused these deaths. The distinction is critical because your case for raising OTP taxes is based on the presumption that all tobacco products are equally risky: “Experts say all forms of tobacco are considered harmful to human health no matter whether they are smoked, puffed, chewed or otherwise ingested. Smokeless tobacco, for instance, is often linked to oral and esophageal cancer.”

In fact, smokeless tobacco use is 98 percent safer than smoking. While smokeless may be “linked to oral and esophageal cancer,” the specific risks are well established in the scientific literature, and they are minuscule. In 2009, a comprehensive review published calculations showing how smokeless tobacco use might have changed cancer deaths among American men in 2005, when 104,737 in the U.S. died from seven cancers directly attributable to smoking. If all smokers had instead used smokeless tobacco, the number would have been 1,102. The risks from smokeless tobacco are so low that, even if all American men had been users, there would have been 2,298 cancer deaths, only 2.2 percent of the number attributable to smoking.

Smokeless tobacco use is vastly safer than smoking, so it is not “foolish public policy” for smokeless taxes to be lower than those for cigarettes. The emerging awareness of smokeless as a cigarette substitute is not just an industry ploy, it has been endorsed by two prestigious medical organizations, the British Royal College of Physicians and the American Association of Public Health Physicians. The Royal College concluded “…that smokers smoke predominantly for nicotine, that nicotine itself is not especially hazardous, and that if nicotine could be provided in a form that is acceptable and effective as a cigarette substitute, millions of lives could be saved.”

Brad Rodu, Louisville, Kentucky

The National Center for Public Policy Research is a communications and research foundation supportive of a strong national defense and dedicated to providing free market solutions to today’s public policy problems. We believe that the principles of a free market, individual liberty and personal responsibility provide the greatest hope for meeting the challenges facing America in the 21st century.