As part of an effort to curb tobacco use in New Mexico, especially among high school students who are increasingly using e-cigarettes, several lawmakers expressed support Thursday for increasing taxes on all tobacco products.
The push to raise the price on cigarettes and other tobacco products came after representatives from the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network delivered a long list of bleak statistics about the toll tobacco use is taking on New Mexicans.
“I think you’ve made a very compelling argument today that we need to do this and do it in a fairly hefty manner,” state Sen. Martin Hickey, D-Albuquerque, said during a meeting of the Legislative Health and Human Services Committee.
“Otherwise, we are condemning the kids to very poor health,” he said. “I don’t know if there’s any connection between smoking and other illicit drugs — some people say that there is — but we do need to save them from themselves, kind of like parents, while you still can.”
In New Mexico, about 1 in 3 high school students uses electronic cigarettes, also known as vaping, up from about 1 in 4 in 2015.
“New Mexico is ranked third highest in high school student use of e-cigarettes [behind West Virginia and North Carolina] among 44 states that took part in the survey,” said Mahesh Sita, government relations director for the American Heart Association. He was referring to an annual youth risk behavior survey.
Nationally, New Mexico is ranked fifth highest in youth smoking rates. Nearly 9 percent of high school students smoke cigarettes, according to data from the New Mexico Youth Risk and Resiliency Survey, the state Department of Health, and the Public Education Department included in the presentation. Among adults, nearly 1 in 5 smokes cigarettes.
Sita called the cost to health care “enormous.”
“We spend almost $815 million annually on tobacco-related illnesses and care, and Medicaid alone is like almost $223 million,” he said, adding each household in New Mexico pays $937 to cover smoking-caused government costs.
Linda Siegle, government relations director for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, said increasing taxes on tobacco products would go a long way in addressing the problem.
“The single most direct and reliable method of reducing consumption of tobacco products is raising taxes, making it more difficult to purchase tobacco products,” she said. “Even though we have cessation programs and prevention programs, we know that the cost of a pack of cigarettes, the cost of an e-cigarette, is the way to get people to stop smoking or vaping.”
Unfortunately, Siegle said, increasing tax rates on tobacco products doesn’t happen very often. A “significant increase” went into effect in 2010 when Bill Richardson was governor. The tax rate on a pack of cigarettes nearly doubled from 91 cents to $1.60, she said. That was followed by an increase to $2 a pack in 2019.
“Though that reduces consumption, which is what our advocacy groups want, it also increases revenue,” she said. “Revenue has never gone down; it’s only gone up even when we have raised the price and reduced the number of packs of cigarettes.”
During the 60-day legislative session at the beginning of the year, a bill that would have added $2 to the price of a pack of cigarettes stalled in a Senate committee. The proposed legislation also would have increased the excise tax for other tobacco products, such as chewing tobacco, e-liquids and closed system cartridges for e-cigarettes.
Though no specific proposals were offered at Thursday’s legislative committee meeting, several lawmakers said they would support legislation to increase tobacco taxes.
“We have to be aggressive, and I really, really hope that the governor sees this as a priority and that this bill can be put forth,” said Roger Montoya, D-Española. “I mean, why couldn’t New Mexico lead the nation in how much we tax and just kind of turn heads and throw spaghetti at the wall.”
Nora Meyers Sackett, press secretary for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, wrote in an email it would be premature to comment on potential legislation, but the administration will, as always, review and evaluate proposals as they go through the legislative process.
“The governor has long recognized the public health impact of vaping and tobacco use on New Mexicans, which is why she has spearheaded and signed multiple initiatives into law regulating vaping and tobacco,” Sackett wrote. “Last year she successfully pushed for the passage of the Tobacco Products Act, prohibiting the sale of tobacco products to anyone under the age of 21 and establishing a regulatory system for tobacco products, including e-cigarettes.”
Sackett also noted the governor signed into law a prohibition on vaping in indoor public spaces, as well as a new tax on vaping products, in her first legislative session in office.
State Rep. Patricia Roybal Caballero, D-Albuquerque, called the state’s tobacco-related statistics “horrifying.” She said she lives close to a middle and high school and witnesses tobacco use among youth firsthand.
“They can’t wait to get out of school before they’re pulling their e-things out,” she said. “You can tell it’s habitual. It’s a habit. It’s an addiction now. They can hardly wait.”
Roybal Caballero said her mother started smoking at 13 and died from medical problems associated with smoking.
“Even though she stopped [smoking], it was much too late for her,” she said. “And it was all due to the allure, the attraction. I mean, who as a 13-year-old starts doing anything if not because they’re being drawn into it?”
Roybal Caballero said legislators have a responsibility to take action. The negative effects of smoking are now well known and documented, unlike 60 or 70 years ago, she added.
“We now know what the deadly effects are on our health care. It causes deaths; lives are lost,” she said. “We don’t have to test it anymore, and so based on that, we would be irresponsible if we did not address this as an entity, so I would strongly push that we do.”
In addition to requesting an increase on all tobacco taxes, Sita and Siegle asked lawmakers to amend the Tobacco Control Act to include synthetic nicotine and tax it at comparable rates, as well as restore funding for prevention and cessation programs.