COMMENTARY: New Mexico has a unique opportunity today to accomplish two important goals for our state by simply raising taxes on cigarettes and other tobacco products.
First, we can substantially strengthen our children’s classrooms, which have been hit with cuts worth tens of millions of dollars since 2008. Second, we can make sure that more than 11,000 additional kids never even become smokers, and more than 10,000 current adult smokers will quit, significantly lowering overall health costs.
We cannot afford not to do it.
My legislation, SB 231, would increase the tax on cigarettes by $1.50 per pack, with an equivalent increase in other tobacco products including e-cigarettes and chewing tobacco. The tax on a pack of cigarettes would increase from $1.66 to $3.16. It would produce new revenues of $89 million annually for our state.
I believe strongly the additional funds should be targeted to backfill the deep funding cuts our public schools have weathered during recent years, to strengthen classroom budgets and improve outcomes for students. My bill earmarks all the proceeds of the new tax for the state equalization guarantee, or formula distribution, for all our public schools.
Why? Our K-12 classrooms need the money that a cigarette tax boost would bring. Depending on the outcome of other bills in the Legislature, public schools may be facing another steep funding crisis later this year. Governor Susana Martinez has vowed to veto many other measures that have been proposed to help schools’ bottom line.
What can New Mexico expect without an infusion of new revenues for our schools? Larger class sizes, fewer teachers, fewer counselors, and reduced classes in physical education, music, dance and art all lie ahead if the experience of other states is any guide. Elsewhere, all-day kindergarten and summer classes have been cut, and even school weeks have been reduced to four days. Surely, we cannot allow this to happen here.
Without new revenues, our public schools may see cuts of 5-7 percent across the board. This would have a devastating impact. We are submitting proposals now to make sure this does not happen. But Governor Martinez continues to stand by her campaign promise to oppose all options required for a responsible balanced budget.
Raising the tax on tobacco also has been proven to stop kids from smoking before they start. Most smokers begin smoking before they turn 19. A $1.50 per pack increase in New Mexico’s cigarette tax means there will be thousands of fewer smokers in the future, including those who are taking up the increasingly popular e-cigarettes.
Smoking costs New Mexico $844 million in direct health care and Medicaid treatment, and it results in countless deaths, diseases and cancers. Making smoking more expensive would save the lives of more than 7,000 New Mexicans.
Eighty-one percent of New Mexicans think it a good idea to impose a higher excise tax on cigarettes and tobacco. This tax enjoys overwhelming support.
SB 231 is endorsed by education advocates and all the leading health organizations, including the American Lung Association, American Heart Association, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, and the American Cancer Society Action Network. In the House of Representatives, HB 282, sponsored by Rep. Liz Thompson, will accomplish the same goals.
When cigarette and tobacco use declines, lives and money are saved. Raising the tax on tobacco sharply reduces the number of kids and adults who smoke. Tobacco use is the number one preventable cause of death in our state.
The benefits for the health and especially for the classrooms of New Mexico are enormous if we raise the cigarette tax by $1.50. This legislation cannot wait.
Howie Morales, a Democrat, represents District 28 in the New Mexico Senate and is a member of the Senate Finance Committee.