Close Up: Campaign wants smokers to take a hike - in taxes
3/25/2002 News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.
NOTE: Welcome to Close Up, a new series that takes an in-depth look at issues of the day and how United Methodists are addressing them. Photographs, a chart and a sidebar, UMNS story #129, are available with this report. This Close Up series also is available at www.umc.org/closeup/tobacco.
*Caldwell is a journalist residing in Lincolnton, N.C.
A UMNS Report By Neill Caldwell*
The United Methodist Church's longstanding opposition to tobacco use is moving into a new phase, as the denomination's social action agency puts its support behind a proposal aimed at reducing teen smoking nationwide.
If successful, the campaign will force smokers to cough up more money for cigarettes in the form of higher state taxes.
Officials with the United Methodist Board of Church and Society don't have to look far for evidence that such a strategy can work. In Maryland, a few miles beyond the board's Washington offices, a 1999 tax hike has been followed by a dramatic reduction in teen smoking. It's the kind of result that board officials would like to see repeated around the country.
Top staff executive Jim Winkler signaled the agency's support on Jan. 28 by signing a resolution joining the Washington-based Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids in its drive to raise tobacco taxes.
"We feel this stand is in line with our Book of Resolutions and see this as a way to affirm and support our church's longstanding policy against tobacco use," says Lois Clinton, the board's program director for drug and alcohol concerns. "For a very long time, the church has been working with other religious and secular groups in efforts to better regulate the tobacco industry and reduce youth smoking. In the past, we've worked to support comprehensive legislation, including the effort to regulate tobacco as a drug by the FDA."
The United Methodist Church's 2000 Book of Discipline recommends "total abstinence from the use of tobacco. We urge that our educational and communications resources be utilized to support such abstinence."
Clinton says the Board of Church and Society was approached by the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids following the church's support in Maryland, where Bishop Felton Edwin May and the Baltimore-Washington Annual (regional) Conference helped get a 30-cent tax increase per pack of cigarettes passed by the state legislature in 1999.
That effort has become a real success story, Clinton says. The Maryland Department of Education has released a study documenting a 30 percent decrease in smoking by the state's 10th-graders (and a 16 percent decrease among adults) since the 1999 state tax increase. Maryland lawmakers are seeking an additional 70-cent tax increase per pack of cigarettes.
"We're very optimistic because of the Maryland study," Clinton says. "There may be other factors that could also be responsible, but it seems safe to say that there is a strong correlation there. Teen-agers don't have much money, and if a pack of cigarettes costs $5, maybe they'd rather spend that money on a new CD."
Bishop May sees cigarette smoking as a spiritual issue as well. "I am in favor of raising tobacco taxes as part of a holistic strategy to minister to those of us, including some good and faithful United Methodists, who are addicted to tobacco and other substances," May says. "Tobacco addiction is first of all a spiritual and a pastoral matter, just as all self-destructive behavior is, including everything from heroin use to overeating to lack of a disciplined prayer life.
"All of us are addicts who are in the process of being delivered from our addictions," he says.
"The church's primary task must be to proclaim and demonstrate the liberating love of Jesus Christ. As part of our holistic efforts to do that, we should work to increase tobacco taxes, especially as a way of deterring tobacco use by youth. Then the revenue from increased taxes should be used for programs to prevent and treat substance abuse and chemical dependency, as is being done here in Maryland.
"The language of the Discipline is specific," May adds. "It says that because of the overwhelming evidence that the use of tobacco is hazardous to our health, 'we recommend total abstinence from the use of tobacco,' just as we support abstinence from alcohol and gambling."
United Methodists' work in Maryland has made a difference that can be duplicated in other states, says Vincent DeMarco, executive director of the Maryland Citizens Health Initiative.
"We're thrilled that the United Methodist Church is making increasing the tobacco tax a top priority, and pleased that the church will make an effort to lead this campaign nationally," he says.
The church's support in Maryland helped DeMarco's coalition reach out to other faith communities. "I can say categorically that the tax increase would not have passed without United Methodist support."
Not surprisingly, tobacco companies oppose any move to increase taxes on their products.
"The United Methodist Church has the right to take any position it chooses on tobacco use," says John Singleton, director of public affairs for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., based in Winston-Salem, N.C. "One of the many things that makes the United States the world's greatest nation is the freedom it affords groups and individuals to choose a point of view on public policy issues and to freely express that position.
"However, we believe the tax profiling of adult smokers by burdening them with additional excessive taxes is unfair."
Between 1999 and 2001, state and federal governments collected more than $88 billion from the major tobacco companies in taxes and payments, Singleton says.
"That amounts to a government per-pack profit of $1.54, approximately 15 times more than R.J. Reynolds makes per pack," he says. "In addition, relatively little of the money governments collect annually from smokers is being spent on the tobacco-control programs the states said they needed. Instead, settlement funds are being spent on bridges, roads, deficit reduction and more bureaucracy."
Increasing taxes has not been shown to be an effective way to decrease teen smoking, Singleton says.
"The best way to reduce under-age smoking is through the enforcement of laws that make purchases of cigarettes by anyone under the age of 18 illegal," he says, "as well as through programs that educate kids about the health risks associated with smoking."
Concern for farmers
The tax proposal also raises concerns about the potential impact on tobacco farmers. DeMarco says that the growers have not been forgotten.
"Maryland is a tobacco state," he says. "There's a tobacco leaf in our state flag. But tobacco farmers are as much victims as anyone else. We want to help the farmers by making sure some of that tax revenue goes to the farmers. But we can't keep up a process where hundreds of thousands die from tobacco each year and tens of thousands of teen-agers become addicted to tobacco each year."
"Maryland used some of the revenue from its increased tobacco taxes to support farmers who wanted to transition to other crops," May says. "It turned out that the majority of farmers wanted to grow other crops and took the state up on its offer."
Branson agrees that any campaign to raise tobacco taxes should include a provision to benefit tobacco farmers. "The tobacco control community has always supported the idea that some of the tax money will go back to growers to help them switch from tobacco to other crops. And the tobacco industry itself is no friend to the American farmer, because it is continuously buying cheaper tobacco from outside the U.S."
Working at state level
As the campaign gets under way, the Board of Church and Society will begin by working with existing anti-tobacco coalitions at the state level, providing leadership and technical and financial support, Clinton says.
"These statewide groups consist of a broad range of folks, including the church community," she adds. "United Methodists are just one piece of it. Eventually we hope to work our way down South, where there's not a lot being done."
Dr. Roy Branson, co-chair of the Interreligious Coalition on Smoking or Health, says the board's latest action continues the United Methodist Church's major emphasis on health issues.
"I can't applaud the United Methodist Church enough for its continued leadership in this area," Branson says. "Methodists know that the church has been very concerned with health and its connection to healthy spirituality, going back to John Wesley himself. That tradition provides a motivation to do something in this area."
Raising the tax is the single most effective way to reduce smoking for young people, which is important because the majority of new smokers are under age 18, he says.
"When the price is increased, they're taken aback and start to seriously consider stopping," he says. "When the price of a pack of cigarettes goes up, it affects them more than it would a Wall Street attorney. And the more young people we can get to stop, the more people are kept out of the health care system, out of the health care statistical bin."
Branson cites two examples of the effectiveness of this strategy in reducing smoking. "In California, when cigarette taxes were raised, usage went down," he says. "That also happened in Canada, and when tobacco taxes were lowered, usage started to creep back up again."
The Rev. Stephen Mott, chairman of the New England Annual Conference's board of church and society, has set up a meeting in April with representatives from the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids.
"This is an important issue, and I am glad for the opportunity to learn more about it," Mott says. "This is an issue that United Methodists can support. We're a small portion of the population in my area, but I've found that people who have a deep conviction to what they're doing can always have an impact."