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Group turns in petitions to raise North Dakota cigarette tax from 44 cents per pack to $2.20

BISMARCK -- Coalition members pushing an effort to increase the state’s tobacco tax submitted more than 22,000 signatures to the North Dakota Secretary of State’s office Thursday, moving one step closer to putting the matter before voters in November.

Opposition to the measure is expected to organize following its placement on the ballot.

“Today, we’re taking a huge step forward in protecting our kids,” Kristie Wolff, with the American Lung Association in North Dakota, said on behalf of the Raise It for Health North Dakota group. “We are overwhelmed by the response from around the state. That’s a sign of the strength of our coalition.”

Wolff, flanked by veterans as well as other coalition members and their children, said more than 150 unpaid volunteers worked to surpass the 13,452 legitimate signatures needed for access on the Nov. 8 ballot.

The measure, if passed, would increase the tobacco tax for cigarettes in North Dakota from 44 cents per pack to $2.20. Taxes on liquid nicotine products would be increased from 28 percent of the wholesale purchase price to 56 percent.

The national average tax on a pack of cigarettes is $1.61.

The tobacco tax in North Dakota hasn’t been raised since 1993. Two bills to do so failed last session by wide margins.

Current allocations of tobacco tax dollars going to the state general fund and to cities would be held harmless.

New tax revenues created through the measure, estimated at about $200 million per biennium, would be split between health-related programs in the state’s Community Health Trust Fund as well as a newly created Veterans Tobacco Tax Trust Fund.

Wolff said raising the tobacco tax is the most proven method of preventing young people from smoking. According to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, the tax increase could result in a 20 percent drop in youth smoking, preventing about 5,800 youths from becoming adult smokers.

She said a largely educational campaign will be waged to make the case to voters on the need for the tax increase and subsequent spending on the various programs.

“This needs to be a significant increase in order to have an impact,” Wolff said.

Such an increase is considered to be out of line by likely opponents.

“We’re going to do all we can to protect the North Dakota consumer from a 400 percent tax increase on any product,” North Dakota Retail Association president Mike Rud said.

The retailers group he leads will be considering its options following the likely placement of the measure on the ballot. He expects an effort to oppose the measure to begin organizing in a few weeks.

Rud said it’s unfair to impose such a large tax on a product that would most negatively impact lower-income people.

While the retail association doesn’t endorse tobacco use, he said there’s also the need to protect the group’s members who are providing a legal product for which there is demand.

The state has moved towards a tougher stance on smoking and tobacco use in recent years. Two-thirds of North Dakota voters in 2012 approved a ballot measure making public places smoke-free. In 2008, nearly 54 percent of voters approved the creation of a state tobacco prevention and control program.

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