- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 5, 2017

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - Supporters of a proposed tobacco tax touted the measure Wednesday as a way to curb smoking and boost caregivers’ pay, but the measure’s fate is uncertain as Republican lawmakers in Montana seek to halt its advance.

The state Senate passed the proposal last week, but the chamber’s Republican leadership is arguing that the nearly $70 million the measure would generate over two years is unnecessary and would financially hurt smokers who are poor.

The bill now awaits action from the House Taxation Committee, which was deluged Wednesday with testimony from health advocates, business owners and those appealing for lawmakers to address challenges faced by home care services.

The cigarette tax proposal represents just one of the many clashes this legislative session between Democrats and fiscal conservatives over the state budget. Republicans have resisted - and mostly rejected - Democratic overtures for more spending and revenue enhancers to benefit education and health care programs.

Under the proposal, the tax on a pack of cigarettes would rise from $1.70 to $3.20 and impose a tax on e-cigarettes for the first time. The tax on a can of moist snuff would also rise from 85 cents an ounce to at least $3.20. The tax on all other tobacco products would increase from 50 percent of the wholesale price to 74 percent. The change would take effect May 1.

Some of the revenue would fund health and anti-tobacco programs, as well as boost wages for direct care workers serving the elderly and the disabled who are covered by Medicaid.

“It saves lives. It saves money. And it saves services,” said the bill’s sponsor Democratic Sen. Mary Caferro of Helena.

Health advocates joined Caferro in arguing that increasing the cost of a pack of cigarettes would help give price-sensitive tobacco users the incentive to kick their nicotine habits and make purchases too expensive for children to buy.

Meanwhile, advocates for the elderly and the disabled appealed to lawmakers to dedicate revenue to help raise the wages for direct care workers. Low wages has meant a shortage of such workers.

Mark Sanders, a part-time direct care attendant who has a disability himself, said he makes less than $11 an hour - higher than the average wage earned by direct care workers in Montana - but a challenge to make ends meet.

His employer uses a wheelchair and needs help getting out of bed, dressing and performing other tasks able-bodied people can do themselves.

Businesses owners, particularly those who cater to the rising demand for e-cigarettes, said the new tax would harm, if not kill their livelihoods.

Deanna Marshall owns vaping stores in Bozeman and Belgrade and worries that a rise in prices would slow her booming business. She and others argued that e-cigarettes should not be taxed like cigarettes. They assert that the nicotine-laced liquid used in vapor-producing devices is safer than cigarettes, which federal health officials say cause cancer and kill more than 480,000 Americans each year.

Marshall said e-cigarettes helped her kick a three-pack-a-day habit three years ago and prompted her to open her own businesses.

“I knew I was going to die from smoking,” Marshall said.

The heath threats from e-cigarettes are still being studied, but some researchers say the nicotine and other chemicals contained in the vapor may nevertheless be harmful.


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