Commentary

Cigarette Taxes and Spending Requirements for Anti-Tobacco Programs Don’t Belong In Colorado’s State Constitution

The policy problems with Colorado’s Amendment 72.

Colorado’s Amendment 72 would create a $315 million tax windfall for the state government by targeting a small and shrinking segment of the population – smokers. The initiative would triple the state tax on cigarettes from 84 cents per pack to $2.59 per pack, with the new revenue intended to fund a potpourri of programs.

Advocates claim the amendment will raise cigarette prices so high that it will get smokers to quit. Yet, Colorado has already been reducing tobacco use without the large tax increase. Colorado already outperforms 41 other states in terms of reducing smoking rates.

Amendment 72’s proponents also fail to point out that if the tax increase successfully reduces smoking as intended, the state will see dwindling revenues. The cigarette taxes would be funding seven different programs. As fewer people smoke, fewer tobacco tax dollars would be collected. Government programs that are funded through tobacco tax money aren’t likely to just go away. Thus, taxpayers can rest assured that it won’t be long before advocates will soon be back for other tax increases.

Amendment 72 represents flawed policy that would be seriously questioned if contemplated by the legislature, but as a ballot initiative, it’s worse because it would write bad policy into the state constitution.

It’s not easy to change a bad law passed by the legislature, but it happens all the time. If a law proves to bring harsh consequences or priorities change, legislators respond by changing the law.

Changing the constitution, as Amendment 72 would do, however, is an entirely different matter. If Amendment 72 is passed, it will be near impossible to change it. The only realistic way to fix future problems or unintended consequences that arise would be the tedious, expensive work of amending the constitution. In short, it won’t happen.

Nobel prize winning economist Milton Friedman warned that “one of the great mistakes is to judge policies and programs by their intentions rather than results.”

People trying to reduce smoking rates have good intentions but amending the state constitution to raise tobacco taxes is likely going to result long-term budget problems that shouldn’t be entombed in the constitution.

Brian Fojtik is a senior fellow at Reason Foundation.