HELENA – Advocates of a voter initiative that would raise the state’s tobacco tax are highlighting Montana families who have been affected by tobacco use.
Supporters of Initiative 185 held a news conference at the State Capitol Wednesday, presenting what they called a “report card” for major tobacco companies.
“We hear every day of the deadly and harmful – and frankly sad – effects of what tobacco has done in Montana,” said Amanda Cahill, Montana director of government relations for the American Heart Association.
I-185’s backers accused tobacco producers of spreading misinformation about what the initiative would do. They also pointed to a 2006 federal court decision finding those companies had understated the health risks from their products for decades. Finally, they claimed tobacco companies targeted their products to young people and military members.
During the event, several people who’ve lost family members to tobacco-related illness spoke out.
“Every Montanan, I would venture to say, has a story about how tobacco has affected their lives and affected their families, and those aren’t positive stories,” Cahill said.
Keri Yoder, a volunteer with the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, said her brother started smoking in the military, at age 18. She said he eventually suffered three heart attacks and passed away at the age of 58.
“It is sad to imagine young people suffering the way my brother did,” she said. “It’s time Big Tobacco pays its fair share for the impacts of its products in Montana.”
Dr. Todd Wampler, a physician with St. Peter’s Health, said he lost his father at an early age because of tobacco-related illness. He also said, while serving as a doctor with the U.S. Air Force, he saw the effects tobacco had on servicemembers and veterans. He said almost one out of three veterans uses tobacco products.
“We have a moral obligation to take care of our military members, and that’s why I’m here today,” he said.
I-185 would raise the state cigarette tax by $2 a pack, to $3.70 a pack. It would also increase taxes on other tobacco products, including moist snuff, and add taxes on e-cigarettes and vaping products. Up to $26 million of the money raised would be used to extend Montana’s Medicaid expansion program, which is currently scheduled to expire next year. Some of the remaining funding would go toward other health programs, including tobacco prevention efforts and veterans’ services.
Montanans Against Tax Hikes is the committee created to oppose I-185. Chuck Denowh, the group’s treasurer, has called the initiative a “massive tax increase” and argued it doesn’t provide enough money to pay for Medicaid expansion, so taxpayers will have to make up millions of dollars in difference.
“Montanans Against Tax Hikes plans to run a campaign and make sure voters understand why they should reject I-185,” Denowh said in a statement.
The committee has received more than $1 million in planning, polling, legal services and other in-kind contributions from Altria Client Services and RAI Services Company. Those groups are lobbying arms of the major tobacco producers Altria – formerly known as Philip Morris – and Reynolds American, Inc.
Healthy Montana for I-185, the committee supporting the initiative, has drawn substantial cash and in-kind contributions from the Montana Hospital Association, the national health care reform group Families USA, labor unions and groups like the American Heart Association and American Cancer Society.