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House rejects tobacco tax hike, approves bills banning e-cigarettes to minors

BISMARCK – House lawmakers on Friday rejected a tobacco tax hike and approved a bill that bans the sale of e-cigarettes to minors while also defining them as a non-tobacco product, which one Democrat criticized as a “stealth” way to prevent them from being taxed in the future.

Representatives voted 34-56 to defeat House Bill 1421, which would have increased the excise tax on a pack of cigarettes from 44 cents to $1.54, with comparable increases on snuff and chewing tobacco.

Health and medical organizations backed the increase, while business groups and border retailers fought it.

Rep. Vicki Steiner, R-Dickinson, a member of the House Finance and Taxation Committee that gave the bill a 12-2 do-not-pass recommendation, said tobacco is a legal product and raising the tax by 285 percent would hurt smokers unable to quit, including low-income residents.

“Why would we increase a tax on our people simply because they have an addiction?” she said. “Let’s light up the board with red votes.”

Rep. Jon Nelson, R-Rugby, lead sponsor of the bipartisan bill, said it’s “undeniable” that higher tobacco taxes reduce smoking rates, especially among youths – a claim challenged by bill opponents – and that the bill puts responsibility on smokers who drive up health care costs.

He and other supporters highlighted that the 44-cent tax hasn’t been raised since 1993 and is the 46th lowest in the nation. The $1.10 increase would have put the tax on par with the national average but still below the regional average. South Dakota’s tax is $1.53 per pack, while Montana’s is $1.70 and Minnesota’s is $2.90.

“Does that make sense in this day and age, that we need a 44-cent tax to bring people to this state?” Nelson said, adding, “This is all about health, and it’s about stopping smoking.”

Rep. Rick Becker, R-Bismarck, said the bill was well-intentioned but shortsighted.

“It is not our job to raise taxes to try and mold people’s behavior to what we think is a better and more healthy lifestyle,” he said.

A companion bill, Senate Bill 2322, would raise the cigarette tax to $2 per pack.

Predicting a possible statewide vote on the issue, Nelson warned that if the Legislature doesn’t act to increase tobacco taxes, “the people of North Dakota will, and I hope you like what they come up with.”

Check back for more on this story

Mike Nowatzki

Mike Nowatzki reports for Forum News Service. He can be reached at (701) 255-5607.

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