Tobacco is the only product that when used as directed will kill you. Each year, 1,600 Montanans needlessly die from deadly tobacco products. Nationwide, smoking causes more than 480,000 deaths per year, or roughly one in every five deaths. Furthermore, for every person who dies from smoking, at least 30 more are suffering from serious disease and disability caused by smoking.
Yet, Montana hasn’t raised its tobacco tax since 2005. Every state that has significantly increased its tobacco tax has seen the sales of tobacco decrease, leading to fewer kids starting to smoke and a lot less preventable disease and death.
As health care providers, we work hard to keep our patients safe and healthy. That’s why we support the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, American Heart Association and more than a dozen other organizations urging the Legislature to pass a lifesaving tobacco tax increase this year.
The SAVE Act, sponsored by Sen. Mary Caferro, D-Helena, would raise Montana’s cigarette tax by $1.50 a pack. It would also tax all other tobacco products, such as electronic cigarettes and chewing tobacco, at equivalent rates. When cigarette taxes increase, tobacco companies use deceptive marketing to lure youth to lower-priced alternatives. E-cigarettes are especially popular and currently used by almost 30 percent of Montana teens.
Significantly increasing tobacco taxes is one of the most effective ways to encourage people to quit and keep our kids from starting. In fact, the $1.50 cigarette tax increase is projected to save 3,900 Montanans from premature smoking-related death. It’s also projected to decrease youth smoking rates in the state by nearly 16 percent and help 7,200 current adult smokers to quit.
Montana has above-average smoking rates, with 13 percent of the state’s high-schoolers and almost 19 percent of adults smoking cigarettes. Studies show that 90 percent of smokers start as teens, and in Montana, 500 kids each year become new daily smokers. An estimated 19,000 Montana children alive today will ultimately die prematurely from this deadly addiction—unless we reduce tobacco use.
Raising the state’s tobacco tax will help reverse these statistics, save lives and protect future generations. It’s also popular. A poll released by the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network in December found that 77 percent of Montana voters support a $1.50 per pack cigarette tax increase, with revenue used for programs to reduce tobacco use, especially among kids, and to fund other state health programs faced with devastating budget cuts this year. The same poll finds Montana voters also support extending the tax increase to include all other tobacco products.
Most tobacco users we meet want to quit. In fact, about half of all smokers try to quit each year, but fewer than 10 percent succeed without help. But health doesn’t always start in our offices. Montana’s lawmakers can help our residents make the lifesaving choice to quit tobacco—or better yet to never start smoking—by raising the tobacco tax.
Dr. Zachary Meyers is a family physician and medical educator in Bozeman. This opinion piece was also signed by Dr. Michelle Proper, an oncologist at Community Medical Center in Missoula; Dr. Brian Rah, an interventional cardiologist at Billings Clinic; and Dr. Douglas Waldo, an interventional cardiologist at Benefis Healthcare in Great Falls.