Championing tobacco over food is unexpected in Utah, especially at the expense of children. This might happen in our state if the American Legislative Exchange Council and proponents of a food sales tax increase both get their way during this legislative session.
During their annual national convention in Salt Lake City, ALEC shopped a resolution encouraging state legislators to decrease taxes on smokeless tobacco products — chew, snuff, Snus, etc. — potentially to 5 percent of the current tax rates. Coincidentally, at almost the same time, Utah legislators proposed increasing the food sales tax from 1.75 percent to 4.70 percent. Decreasing the tax on tobacco products will lead to more of Utah's children beginning to use tobacco. Increasing the tax on food will affect the one-in-seven Utah children who go hungry. Utah's children appear to be up for sale by proponents of the food tax increase, ALEC and tobacco companies.
Incentivizing tobacco use is never warranted. Higher tobacco tax rates prevent tobacco initiation, especially among children. According to the 2012 U.S. Surgeon General Report, almost 90 percent of regular tobacco users become addicted as children or adolescents. Smokeless tobacco products kill. A 2008 study from the World Health Organization found an 80 percent risk of developing oral cancer within five years of beginning smokeless tobacco use. Heart attacks are almost as likely to occur among smokeless tobacco users as among smokers. The Centers for Disease Control reports that many smokers who use smokeless tobacco become "dual users," meaning they become addicted to cigarettes and smokeless tobacco products. Utah has the fifth highest "dual use" rate in the country. "Dual users" have a 180 percent higher likelihood of suffering a heart attack. Smokeless tobacco products are not a healthy alternative to cigarettes.
Tobacco companies are using ALEC to market tobacco to Utah children to exploit the higher profit margins of smokeless tobacco products. Tobacco companies continued to market tobacco to children after advertising restrictions to protect children were adopted. U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Company internal documents demonstrate development of products that are "milder tasting, more flavored, and/or easier to control in the mouth" to target children (Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids). ALEC is heavily funded by tobacco companies and has tobacco company representatives in key positions. The ALEC resolution also attempts to divert state money and constrain health departments to promote smokeless tobacco products.
Why do ALEC and the tobacco industry believe that Utah children are for sale? The ALEC resolution will increase nicotine addiction among children. Tobacco-related health risks, business productivity losses, and health care costs (medical expenses and insurance premiums) bourne by all Utahns will increase. The only way to reduce the health risks of tobacco use maximally is to stop using tobacco entirely. FDA-approved treatment products have been scientifically shown to successfully treat tobacco use.
Maintaining tax rates on tobacco products decreases tobacco initiation and addiction among children and is a best practice recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and American Academy of Pediatrics. Proposing a tobacco tax decrease with an increase on the tax on food is bad policy that will harm Utah children. While our organization would never support policy changes that would have immediate and long term effects on the nutrition and development of children, neither would we support a stand-alone decrease in the tax on tobacco nor any of the other policy recommendations proposed by the 2012 ALEC resolution that incentivize tobacco use among Utah children. Utah children are not for sale!
Kevin Nelson is the chairman of the Coalition for a Tobacco Free Utah and a pediatrician at the University of Utah.