The Oklahoma Legislature May Need You to Start Smoking

A question from David Van Risseghem on his Facebook page got me thinking. He asked, “Hey? Is the impending special session being called to help folks quit smoking? Or just to get more money?” 

Very quick background for those who don’t know – During the last Oklahoma legislative session a bill was passed enacting a $1.50 per pack ‘cessation fee.’ Senate Bill 845, the Smoking Cessation and Prevention Act of 2017, was designed to bring in about $215 million into the state coffers. Earlier this week the state Supreme Court ruled the bill violates the Oklahoma Constitution for various reasons that are completely correct but not relevant to the discussion here.

Now the question is what to do about the $215 million in taxes (note – taxes, not ‘fees’) that the state will not be receiving, but was included by the legislature in the 2017-2018 budget appropriations. Conventional wisdom seems to be that the governor will call for a special session of the legislature. I’d say that’s a certainty as soon as the legislative leadership devises a plan to siphon the taxes (fees, if you’re a legislator in denial) from the populace. The problem is when SB845 was passed during the session, it did so with a margin far too close to believe they will get the three-fourths vote necessary to pass a tax increase. State question 640, passed by a vote of the citizens in 1992, requires a revenue bill be approved by a three-fourths vote of both legislative chambers or a vote of the people at the next general election. SB845 received 58% yes votes in the Senate and 51% in the House. A lot of back room deals and pressure on naive legislators would be necessary to pass the cigarette tax in a special session and do so with the required supermajority. To get the supermajority, twenty-four House members will have to change their vote to yes and eight in the Senate. Will that happen? I certainly hope not, but this legislature has already been a huge disappointment for conservatives. 

If the special session commences, the fix is in somehow and the tax is passed with a supermajority, that will put pressure on smokers in Oklahoma to live up, or smoke up, to the expectations of the legislators. Let’s do the math.

The cessation tax, er, fee bill was said to be worth $215 million in revenue to the state at $1.50 per pack. That means the legislature expects 143,333,334 packs of cigarettes to be sold in Oklahoma. The U.S. Census Bureau has the population of Oklahoma at 3,924,000 people in 2016 and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention has the number of smokers in Oklahoma at 22.2% of the population, which is 871,128. In order to get $215 million over the next year at $1.50 per pack means the 871,128 smokers in Oklahoma each need to be smoking 165 packs per year or basically, three packs per week. That number is actually low since I have no way to know how many packs of cigarettes are sold at tribal smoke shops. More than 30 tribes have tobacco compacts with the state that give the tribes about a fifty percent rebate on taxes collected on cigarettes. Meaning that cancer sticks purchased at tribal smoke shops don’t benefit the state as much as cancer sticks purchased at a 7-11. 

What this all boils down to is if the legislature has a special session and manages to get the cigarette tax passed, the onus will then be on the 871,128 smokers in Oklahoma to smoke enough cancer sticks to pay the state $215 million. It will be very important that the smokers in Oklahoma continue to purchase cigarettes and smoke at a rate expected by our legislators. In fact, it would behoove the state government to see to it that as many people smoke as possible. More smokers = more taxes = more money for the legislature to spend. I would suggest that the $1 million of the smoking revenue designated for programs to reduce smoking be spent instead on promoting smoking. After all, if the ‘smoking cessation fee’ really works as the legislators claim they intend, wouldn’t that mean fewer smokers and less money for the state? No, that cannot be allowed. We must have more smokers and I will explain why.

It isn’t just the $215 million that is of concern here. That amount does not include the matching federal funds the state would have received.

NewsOK – “Oklahoma agencies stand to lose a combined $519 million with the federal matching funds,” warned Craig W. Jones, president of the Oklahoma Hospital Association. “This will likely result in at least an 8 percent provider rate cut, on top of 18 percent in unrestored cuts since 2010, closing rural hospitals and eliminating health and mental health/substance abuse services in many areas.”

So you see, the legislature has chosen to tie more than half a billion dollars of state spending to the smoking habits of 22% of the Oklahoma population. That’s a lot of responsibility for the 22% but I have every confidence they can do it. Meanwhile, the $1 million for reducing smoking could be better spent recruiting new smokers. We need new smokers. Senate bill 845 has no sunset date so the legislature will be looking to this revenue source every year for at least $215 million or they will have to cut the budget. As smokers die off from old age or, more likely, cancer, it is incumbent on those who tie the fiscal stability of our budget to smokers that they take steps to ensure a continuing supply of those willing to commit slow suicide in order to benefit the rest of us. Perhaps it should be mandated that all nonsmoking legislators are to begin smoking a minimum of three packs per week. Just not at the capitol building, please. There’s enough smoke being blown at taxpayers there already.

(Note to David – Thanks for putting this idea in my head.)

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