D.C. Council member Vincent Gray has offered an amendment to the 2019 Budget Support Act that would increase the District’s cigarette tax by $2 per pack.
The amendment would also direct at least 10 percent of the revenue to tobacco cessation and prevention efforts and provide money for other city needs.
The increase comes as more efforts are being made nationwide to outlaw menthol cigarettes — the favorites of many African-American smokers.
The D.C. Council’s recent meeting tackled one of the District’s biggest public health issues — smoking cessation.
“I plan to offer an amendment to the 2019 Budget Support Act that would increase the District’s cigarette tax by $2 per pack,” Gray said. “It may surprise some that a simple, common-sense proposal like this has the potential to forever alter the public health landscape in the District, but it most assuredly does.”
Research has proven that significantly increasing the price of cigarettes and using a portion of that revenue to fund tobacco prevention and cessation programs can help break the cycle of tobacco dependence, the Ward 7 councilman added.
“This is especially important when one considers the District currently spends $26.70 on smoking-related health costs and lost productivity for every pack of cigarette sold,” he said. “However, the problem of tobacco addiction goes well beyond the financial burden that the District faces. There are moral reasons as well.”
About 12.5 percent of D.C. high school students smoke, and each year 100 D.C. children under age 18 become new daily smokers, according to city statistics.
Smoking kills 800 D.C. adults each year.
Moreover, at today’s rate, 7,000 D.C. children alive today will die prematurely from smoking, health officials said.
Tobacco use perpetuates health disparities, as evidenced by the smoking rates among African Americans (20.3 percent) and LGBTQ (34 percent) residents.
Smoking rates also vary widely by ward.
The rates in Ward 7 (27.2 percent) and Ward 8 (28.4 percent) are much higher than elsewhere in D.C., especially in Wards 2 and 3, where less than 10 percent of District residents smoke, according to city health statistics.
If Gray’s amendment is passed, the proposal will prevent 2,400 of D.C.’s youth from becoming adults who smoke and help 5,300 adults quit smoking, Gray estimates.
“Moreover, it will reduce the rates of cancer and heart disease and countless other smoking-related diseases,” he said.
Gray’s legislation comes as federal lawmakers have reopened the issue of banning menthol cigarettes.
A menthol ban would be yet another example of government action that disproportionately targets the Black community, since about 80 percent of African-American smokers prefer menthol cigarettes, said John I. Dixon III, the immediate past president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE).
“If menthol cigarettes become illegal, it will only increase interaction with law enforcement, leading to the increased and disproportionate arrests and incarceration of African-Americans,” Dixon said. “Just as with drugs, I do not think that people should smoke. Cigarettes are a dangerous product that leads to heart disease, stroke, cancer and death. However, we cannot make progress on the drug front with decriminalization while asking police officers to chase down and lock up people because they smoke menthol cigarettes — particularly while allowing others to smoke different kinds of cigarettes.”
As a national police organization, NOBLE is concerned that illegal activity associated with banning menthol cigarettes could be another challenge for criminal justice in the Black community.
“Also, such a ban would burden our law enforcement, judicial and prison systems and divert needed resources from more pressing problems,” Dixon said.
Meanwhile, because a tobacco-specific tax helps to decrease consumption, the District’s overall business health would get a substantial boost through reductions in health insurance premium costs, reductions in days of lost work, and redistribution of money previously spent on tobacco products into other sectors of the economy, Gray said.
The D.C. Council and mayor have demonstrated their commitment to addressing the problem of tobacco in the past with Gray noting that, less than two years ago, the District’s smoke-free law to include e-cigarettes was updated and it prohibited the use of tobacco products at organized sporting events in the District.
“We also passed a law prohibiting the sale of tobacco products to those under 21, but that policy was never enacted due to lack of funding,” Gray said. “So the passage of this cigarette tax increase could provide the funding necessary for implementing the tobacco 21 law, enforcing tobacco control laws, and further cementing the district as a nationwide leader in efforts to protect kids from tobacco and helping adults who smoke quit.”