Tying Funding for Veterans and the Mentally Ill to Tobacco Tax Revenues Is Counterproductive and Hypocritical Policy


David Johnson, a member of the North Dakota Veterans Coordinating Council, unloads boxes filled with petition signatures for the tobacco tax initiative measure at the Secretary of State's office in the state Capitol Thursday morning in Bismarck. On the left is Kristie Wolff, with the American Lung Association in North Dakota and representing the Raise It for Health North Dakota group, is helped by LeAnn Oliver with the Secretary of State's office. 7-7-2016

A 400 percent increase in North Dakota’s tax on cigarettes (and a big hike on other tobacco products, which are defined by the measure to include vaping) has been placed on the November ballot by a coalition of busybodies calling themselves Raise It For Health.

A group that, curiously, has reported zero contributions or expenditures to the Secretary of State’s office during the drafting and circulation stages of their initiated measure campaign. I spoke with Eric Johnson, the chairman of the committee, and he told me those reports are accurate. How this group managed to collect 22,840 signatures to place their tax hike on the November ballot without raising or spending a penny is beyond me. But that’s what they’re saying is true.


Anyway, the this is a very dumb proposal, and for reasons that go beyond the typical arguments which surround the tobacco debate. It’s not just about whether we ought to be using tax hikes as a sort of de facto instrument of prohibition. It’s not just about the way this measure lumps vaping and its related products in with traditional tobacco use, as if it were the same thing.

It’s that measure would create revenue streams for important things – like funding for veterans and the mentally disabled – to the sale of a product the the measure organizers are simultaneously trying to eradicate.

In a deft, if short-sighted, political maneuver the drafters of this measure directed revenues created by the massive tax hikes it imposes to funds called the Veteran’s Tobacco Trust Fund and the Community Health Trust Fund. The former is actually created by the measure itself:


The latter fund already exists and is used “for community-based public health programs and other public health programs, including programs with an emphasis on preventing or reducing tobacco usage.” In addition to anti-tobacco stuff, the fund is also used for things like loan repayment programs for dentists and physicians. This fund receives money from North Dakota’s share of the tobacco class action lawsuit settlement, funds which have been diverted to the state’s Center for Tobacco Prevention and Control (you know them those annoyingly incessant radio and television ads as BreatheND), but those settlement payments will stop in 2017. So this ballot measure clearly seeks to replace that revenue stream.

Per the measure:

  • 20 mills of the tax on cigarettes and 50 percent of the tax on tobacco products (which is defined as to include vaping products) will go to the general fund
  • 44 mills of the cigarette tax and 25 percent of the tax on tobacco products will go to the veteran’s fund
  • 44 mills of the cigarette tax and 25 percent of the tax on tobacco products will go to the community trust fund, with 70 percent of that share going “for the support of behavioral health services”, 20 percent going to county public health units, and 10 percent going to the Department of Health “for the support of chronic disease detection, prevention, treatment, and control.”

As a rhetorical device, this will be effective. The supporters of the measure can cloak themselves in helping the veterans. And if you oppose the measure? Well then, I guess you don’t want to help the veterans, right?

Cue the outrage at such anti-veteran sympathies.

The problem is that the organizers of this measure also want to stop tobacco use. Which makes this whole exercise more than a bit hypocritical.

We voters will be asked to support this measure to help the veterans, etc., etc. even as the anti-tobacco organizers behind the measure work to stop the sale and use of the product generating the revenues.

This makes no sense. It’s counterproductive. It’s bad policy, regardless of where you stand on tobacco use.

But hey, maybe if the measure passes we can start accusing the folks at BreatheND of being anti-veteran for their (unfortunately government-sanctioned) anti-tobacco activism.

Fair is fair, right?