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Minnesota Opinion: Reject state tax breaks for Big Tobacco

There was a bit of good news in last year's failed tax bill, vetoed by the governor after it was found to contain a typo that would have cost Minnesota taxpayers $100 million. The good news was that the bill contained $35 million in tax breaks over the next three years for the tobacco industry that now won't happen.

That's right, the Minnesota Legislature last year actually voted to give tax breaks to Big Tobacco, including lowering the tax rate on e-cigarettes and eliminating an annual cigarette tax increase that had been helping to keep cigs and other products expensive enough to deter smokers and would-be smokers. If not for a typo, they would have become law.

We're sorry to report there's bad news in this year's tax bill. Tax breaks for Big Tobacco are back. The tax bill in the House contains $50 million of tax cuts for the tobacco industry over four years, 2018 through 2021, including eliminating the annual cigarette tax increase and lowering the price of premium cigars.

Encouragingly, the Senate's tax bill doesn't contain any boost to Big Tobacco.

Anne Mason of Minneapolis-based, smoking-cessation ClearWay Minnesota group is far from alone in her assessment that, "We're disappointed to see what's in the House bill," as she said in an interview late last week with the Duluth News Tribune. "But we are encouraged the Senate didn't include any of it. We're hopeful as it goes through the process, (the Senate's version) is the route they'll choose."

We had been doing so well here in Minnesota. We had been moving in the right direction. After a hefty and historic 76 percent tobacco tax increase in 2013, Minnesota's adult smoking rate hit an all-time low of 14.4 percent a year later. That was lower than the national average and an encouraging 35 percent drop from the 22.1 percent of adult Minnesotans who had been using tobacco products in 1999.

All of this is according to the Minnesota Department of Health, which further reported that 20,000 fewer students in Minnesota were smoking in 2014 compared to just three years earlier. Nearly 22 percent of Minnesotans age 18 to 24 were smokers in 2010. That dropped an eye-popping 30 percent to 15.3 percent in 2014.

"Each year, 5,100 Minnesotans die from tobacco-related illnesses, and thousands of young people become addicted," Molly Moilanen, also of ClearWay Minnesota and also the co-chairwoman of Minnesotans for a Smoke-Free Generation, pointed out in a statement last May. "It's disappointing to see legislators choose tobacco-industry profits over the health of our kids. ... Lawmakers can play an important role in creating a smoke-free generation. ... We cannot afford to roll back progress by giving tobacco companies tax breaks."

And we can't count on another fluke typo and a governor's veto to prevent rolling back progress. Lawmakers can reject these tax breaks now.