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Here’s a tax clearly worth celebrating

Cigarettes almost certainly will be more expensive in Minnesota following this year’s legislative session, and it’ll be thanks to a tax increase worth cheering.

Gov. Mark Dayton, in both his initial budget proposal in January and in his revised spending pitch last week, called for increasing the state’s current tobacco tax of $1.23 per pack by another 94 cents. Other legislative proposals would jack up the tax by anywhere from $1.29 to $1.60 more per pack. Duluth’s Democratic Rep. Tom Huntley has proposed a $1.50 increase. A $1.29 tobacco tax hike would put Minnesota on par with neighboring Wisconsin.

Whatever the increase is, anything significant would be worth a celebration because for every penny the price of cigs goes up, another 244 Minnesotans decide it’s too much and quit smoking, according to the smoking-cessation experts at ClearWay Minnesota. Every penny increase also prevents 318 more kids from becoming addicted adult smokers.

So Huntley’s proposed $1.50 increase, for example, would mean 84,300 fewer smokers in the Gopher State. Imagine the health benefits for the former smokers and for all those around them no longer forced to breathe in their poisonous secondhand smoke. Imagine the savings to health-care costs. Smoking right now costs every Minnesotan $554 a year, or nearly $3 billion overall annually, in health-care costs.

Assuming their concern extends beyond raising money for the state’s coffers to improving residents’ health (though both are desirable), the governor and Legislature are on to something this year. Increasing the price of tobacco is the most effective way to reduce smoking, ClearWay has found. An estimated 43 percent of Minnesotans who quit smoking between 1999 and 2011 did so because of price. Only 20 percent of quitters cited smoke-free laws while 19 percent credited mass media, 11 percent cessation treatment and 7 percent youth-access laws.

When a tax increase on cigarettes leads to fewer smokers, it’ll continue a welcome trend. An estimated 22 percent of Minnesotans were smokers in 1999. Only 16 percent are smokers now.

Minnesota can take a major step forward this year by increasing the state’s tobacco tax, something it hasn’t done since 2005 when it went up 75 cents. That’s the message an estimated 100 young people from the Northland are scheduled to carry to St. Paul on April 18 when they lobby for “Raise it for Health Day,” meaning raise the tax.

Today, more kids, led by members of Iron Range Youth in Action, will take a stand against tobacco by participating in Kick Butts Day in Virginia. They’ll release into the air 160 wish lanterns to represent the $1.60 tobacco tax increase they support. And they’ll eat s’mores to represent how they want “some more” tax on tobacco.

Led by young people, “The majority of Minnesotans are behind this,” ClearWay’s Anne Mason said of a tobacco tax increase this legislative session. Lawmakers can get behind it, too. It’s a tax increase that, unlike most, will be worth cheering — and supporting. — Duluth News Tribune