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County supports higher tobacco, beer taxes

After extensive discussion and on close votes, the St. Croix County Board voted last week (May 15) to endorse increasing state taxes on tobacco and beer.

The tobacco tax resolution was adopted on a vote of 18-13. The beer tax resolution passed on a 20-11 vote.

The tobacco resolution proposes raising the state tax from 77 cents to $2.02 per pack of cigarettes and maintains that the significant increase will "drastically reduce the number of children who become addicted to tobacco" because they will no longer be able to afford cigarettes.

The beer resolution supports raising the tax on beer from $2 a barrel to $10 a barrel (18 cents per six pack or three cents per bottle). The extra money raised would be designated for development of a state alcohol control program.

Tobacco tax

St. Croix Public Health Coordinator Charlotte Sortedahl presented a series of statistics, including a report that indicates that nearly 20 percent, or 64,500, of Wisconsin high school students smoke.

She said the higher tax would deter kids from ever starting to smoke, keeping them and the people they live with healthy now and in the future.

The increased tax would provide the state with an estimated $252.8 million in new revenue each year, money that could be used to sustain the Centers for Disease Control recommended level of funding for tobacco control in Wisconsin. That amount is $31 million. Currently the state's tobacco control program gets only $10 million a year.

The tax would also be used to help fund Medicaid as well as cut Medicaid costs because fewer people would be smoking, said Sortedahl.

Estimates indicate the higher cost would convince about 42,500 Wisconsin adults to quit smoking.

Sortedahl said the new tax money would be placed in a segregated fund to pay for anti-tobacco education, counter-marketing and community and school-based programs -- a claim that some supervisors found doubtful because the state used earlier tobacco lawsuit settlement funds for general government spending.

Supervisor Chuck Struemke, town of Kinnickinnic, proposed amending the resolution to require that the state continue to fund its tobacco prevention program at the current level and that all the tax increase money would go to the Wisconsin Tobacco Prevention and Control Program.

Struemke said this tax increase and the beer tax increase would jointly raise state taxes by over $500 million.

"That's a very high level of tax increase," he said.

Struemke's amendment failed on a 17-14 vote.

The smoking problem won't be solved by adding more taxes, argued River Falls Supervisor Tom Caflisch. If cigarettes are harmful, they ought to be outlawed, he said.

"If it's a big enough problem, the state should fund it," said Supervisor Esther Wentz, noting that tobacco use is legal and that every tax increase seems to go to the state's general fund.

This tax is voluntary, responded Supervisor Daryl Standafer, North Hudson. He said people who don't want to pay it, don't have to buy cigarettes.

But, said Standafer, he supports any program intended to reduce smoking.

Higher taxes do reduce smoking among kids, said North Hudson Supervisor John Borup, who is the county's former director of health and human services.

Town of Troy Supervisor Buzz Marzolf told of visiting his brother, who died of emphysema, in the hospital the night before his death. The dying man passed on advice to Marzolf's students: "Tell them if they're thinking of drinking or smoking, they'd better drink."

Marzolf said he later realized that his brother meant it was easier to quit drinking than to quit smoking.

Beer tax

Board members were told that the University of Wisconsin Public Health Institute ranks St. Croix County 69th highest of 72 counties for binge drinking and that recent focus groups and health surveys identified alcohol use in the county as a high public health priority.

They were told that while each Wisconsin resident on average pays $1.82 a year in beer taxes, each resident pays an average of $18.64 for alcohol treatment costs, $154 for alcohol-related health care and $500 for alcohol-related criminal justice and societal costs.

According to the information presented to the board -- which was taken from the Web site of Rep. Terese Berceau, D-Madison -- last year the beer tax raised $9.7 million but alcohol-related health care costs cost the state $825 million and an estimated $2.7 billion in policing, court, incarceration, premature death and other costs were passed on to Wisconsin taxpayers.

The resolution adopted by the board also indicates that Wisconsin has the third lowest beer tax in the nation and the tax hasn't been raised since 1969.