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Smoke screen

State Rep. Bill Faison says his opposition to boosting the cigarette tax is a matter of principal, even though studies show a hike will help curb teen smoking and cut health costs--as well as raise revenue.


State Rep. Bill Faison was one of a handful of legislative Democrats from mainly rural districts whose opposition to raising North Carolina's cigarette tax--now the lowest in the nation--almost doomed a House budget proposal last week. The freshman Democratic lawmaker, whose district covers all of Caswell County and part of Orange, made a campaign promise to tobacco farmers in his district that he would oppose any increase in the state's 5-cent-per-pack tax this session. As the House hammered out a budget, resistance from Faison and two other Democrats threatened to jettison a 25-cent cigarette tax hike. The leadership prevailed, but only after adding more smoking-tax sympathizers to the Finance Committee. The final House budget--which now needs to be reconciled with the Senate version--raises the cigarette tax from 5 to 30 cents per pack. That's not enough, prevention advocates say, to make a serious dent in either health-care costs or teen smoking rates. Still, even lawmakers who'd backed a 75-cent-per-pack increase voted for the budget because they say it raises needed revenue and provides a toehold for hitting future public health targets on smoking.

We caught up with Faison by telephone on June 16 before the final vote on the House spending plan.

Independent: Why are you opposed to raising the cigarette tax?

Faison: The district that I represent is all of Caswell County and the more rural part of Orange. At the time the campaign was going on, whether or not there would be a tobacco buyout was very much an issue. My view--and let me sort of back up, here. There's no question that cigarettes are bad for you and it's a health hazard. That's written right on the pack. And there is no case to be made that cigarette smoking is good for anyone. That is really not the issue. We are at a transition point for farmers. The Phase 2 money they are getting from the [national] tobacco settlement, if sales are reduced, the Phase 2 money is also reduced. So payouts to farmers at a time when they are desperately in need get worse. The only thing that's really changed since the campaign is that the tobacco buyout has passed Congress.

The actual rules by which money will be paid out have been put forth. But the buyout is over a 10-year period. If you have to retool a business, that doesn't happen right away. The tobacco buyout money will produce much of the capital for people who want to continue farming. What I have said during the campaign and what I continue to stand by is that I would not support a tobacco tax increase this session.

Does that mean you'd wait the 10 years of the buyout before supporting any increase in the cigarette tax?

Absolutely not. I'm not even saying that would be true for next session. I think if it were two years from now, I could get comfortable with some form of tax increase. Now, one of the principal arguments made for increasing the tax is to prevent young people from smoking. I've got six kids and I don't want anyone smoking. But it is illegal in this state for anyone under 16 to be sold cigarettes. So I find the argument not that credible. I know the health argument, but on balance, we have a lot of things that cause health problems. Sugar contributes to obesity. It could lead you to look at sugar as something that ought to be controlled.

Supporters of a higher cigarette tax have cited studies showing it won't harm farmers because their market is global, and the effect on demand for American-grown tobacco will be negligible. How do you respond to that?

I really haven't heard those arguments. I've heard a couple of other arguments you might find interesting. One is the fact that Lorillard in Greensboro manufactures and sells all of its products domestically. If you impact Lorillard's sales it's all American sales.

The figures on how cigarette taxes help lower health-care costs and teen smoking are pretty impressive. [The state spends $4.75 billion a year on smoking-related health care.] Were you not convinced?

Well, the underlying assumption is that by increasing the tax, you are going to cut out smoking. I don't know that you are and I don't know that you aren't. The premise behind the tax is that you raise the tax to deal with the problems generated [by smoking]. But you raise the tax to drive away the product. Do you want the money or to stop the sales? And please understand, I'm not saying it would be a bad idea to kill the whole process. There's nothing beneficial that cigarettes do for you. But I would probably make the same argument for Coca-Cola.

Is health care the main argument you've been hearing in favor of a higher tax?

My perception beginning back really last fall talking with those folks is that they would like to see tobacco products go away altogether. And the higher the tax, the greater the probability that they can drive it out of existence. The discussion about raising funds for health care is a smoke screen, if you will, for a plan to drive it out of existence.

So what would it take to convince you to back higher cigarette taxes?

I just need to go talk to the farmers in the district and say, 'Are you doing OK? Is your family safe and are you going to be able to make a living?'

Where are we now on this issue?

The governor's office had advocated for a 45-cent increase to 50 cents a pack. The Senate has passed 35 cents a pack. The House finance committee passed this morning a package with a 25-cent increase.

And you voted against that?

Yes. I think if you are going to be in public office, you've got to be good with what you say. There has certainly been a lot of pressure on me. I would like to be able to support the leadership. As taxes go, 25 cents is not that bad. I just don't think you can be in public office and tell people you will do something and then do something else.

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