When the D.C. Council meets on Tuesday, May 15, one of the District’s biggest public health issues will hang in the balance. At that meeting, I plan to offer an amendment to the 2019 budget support act that would increase the District’s cigarette tax by $2 per pack; direct at least 10 percent of the revenue to tobacco cessation and prevention efforts; and, provide necessary dollars for other critical needs in the city.
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. 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.
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 dc high school students smoke, and each year 100 D.C. kids under age 18 become new daily smokers.
• Smoking kills 800 D.C. adults each year. Moreover, at today’s rate, 7,000 dc kids alive today will die prematurely from smoking.
• 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 Wards 2 and 3 where less than 10 percent of residents’ smoke.
If passed, this proposal will prevent 2,400 of our youth from becoming adults who smoke and help 5,300 adults quit smoking. Moreover, it will reduce the rates of cancer and heart disease and countless other smoking-related diseases.
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.
The D.C. Council and mayor have demonstrated their commitment to addressing the problem of tobacco in the past. Less than 2 years ago, we updated the District’s smoke-free law to include e-cigarettes and 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. 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 to quit.
To its credit, on Oct. 1, 2014, CVS, one of the larger retailers both locally and nationally, made the decision to stop selling cigarettes and other tobacco products and has suffered no negative consequences as a result. I have heard no complaints about the CVS decision.
It’s time for the D.C. Council to take another modest, common-sense step to help boost the health of our constituents as well as our economic well-being. We could be doing a better job creating the conditions that will protect kids from a lifetime of guilt and regret while helping adults get the tools they need to improve their security and their productivity. Continuing to invest in simple and proven ways to reduce the toll of the tobacco epidemic makes sense for the District.
Vincent C. Gray represents Ward 7 on the D.C. Council and chairs the council’s health committee.