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Cut Taxes on Smokeless Tobacco Products to Improve Health

As legislators consider making Michigan’s cigarette tax the nation’s second highest, proponents argue that higher taxes for smokes would improve health by discouraging tobacco use. But evidence also suggests that cutting taxes on smokeless tobacco could achieve health gains.

"Lowering taxes on smokeless tobacco to encourage smokers to switch from cigarettes to safer smokeless tobacco is a legitimate harm reduction strategy," Michael LaFaive, director of fiscal policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

But state officials may be poised to move in the opposite direction. Gov. Granholm has proposed a 60-percent increase in the 20-percent tax on the wholesale price of "other tobacco products" including smokeless tobacco. Granholm has also proposed a 75-cent hike in cigarette taxes per pack. She has some bipartisan support.

Manufacturers of smokeless tobacco say their newer products can be used discreetly in social situations and still provide high levels of satisfaction to former cigarette users. And some studies show smokeless tobacco is much safer than the combustible forms.

Brad Rodu, professor of pathology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, is an expert on smokeless tobacco usage and has studied the product’s effects on cancer rates and mortality.

Rodu found a link between the high rates of smokeless tobacco use among Swedish men and their relatively low lung cancer rates — the lowest among 20 European countries studied. Other evidence has been cited by Rodu in testimony before Congress. For instance:

-In 2002, the British Royal College of Physicians, a prestigious medical society, published "Protecting Smokers, Saving Lives," which estimated that smokeless tobacco products are 10 to 1,000 times less hazardous than smoking, depending on the product; and

-A 1998 study published in The American Journal of Medicine reported that 25 percent of "inveterate" smokers (people who tried but failed repeatedly to quit smoking) were able to successfully switch from smoking cigarettes, to less dangerous, smokeless tobacco products. The group was followed for 7 years.

"If officials care about the health of Michigan’s tobacco users and aren’t just looking for an easy target for a tax increase, cutting taxes on smokeless tobacco is a sound option," said LaFaive.

"Just for the health of it, lawmakers should quash the tax increase and repeal existing taxes on smokeless tobacco," LaFaive said.

The Mackinac Center for Public Policy (www.mackinac.org) is a nonprofit, nonpartisan research and educational institute based in Midland, Michigan.

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