Our View: 35: Good idea, wrong method

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We admire the intent of Amendment 35, which would increase taxes on tobacco products and use the resulting revenues to address health-care needs in Colorado. However, we feel strongly that this amendment should not be in Colorado's Constitution and therefore urge residents to vote against it.

Amendment 35 would increase Colorado's tax on a pack of cigarettes by 320 percent, from 20 cents to 84 cents. It also would double the tax on other tobacco products from 20 percent to 40 percent of the purchase price. It is estimated that the new taxes would raise $175 million per year, which the amendment designates for specific purposes:

n Forty-six percent, or $80.5 million, would be used to provide health care to low-income children, their parents and pregnant women.

n Nineteen percent, or $33.3 million, would pay for services at health care clinics where at least half of the patients served are poor.

n Sixteen percent, or $28 million, would fund smoking-cessation programs.

n Sixteen percent would be used to prevent, detect and treat cancer, heart and lung disease.

n And 3 percent, or $5.2 million, would be given to state and local governments to use for general health care purposes.

Citizens for a Healthier Colorado, the group that put Amendment 35 on the ballot, notes that Colorado has the lowest cigarette tax of any state in the nation and that tobacco use is the leading cause of preventable death in Colorado each year, killing 4,200 people annually. Advocates also argue that the new taxes will provide sorely needed funds for critical health care programs. Increasing access to health care for those living in poverty is a noble goal that benefits us all.

Having the lowest cigarette tax in the nation is no badge of honor. The Legislature, which has bemoaned the state's fiscal crisis for years, should have seized upon this potential revenue stream years ago. It seems the lobbying efforts of tobacco companies, which vigorously oppose Amendment 35, have successfully prevented that from happening.

Despite the Legislature's inactivity on this issue, it is wrong to handcuff lawmakers with a constitutional amendment that allows no flexibility in meeting the state's financial needs. Residents need look no further than the Taxpayers Bill of Rights and Amendment 23, approved constitutional amendments that require the state to meet conflicting financial demands, to understand the problems that result from using our constitution in this way.

Other arguments against the amendment include that it is a regressive tax that disproportionately affects the poor, who are more likely to smoke, and that it is an unfair "sin tax," singling out the tobacco industry over other harmful industries. We don't buy those arguments. A significant tax will help discourage tobacco use, which is in the best interest of the health of all Coloradans.

Had Amendment 35 been presented as an amendment to Colorado's Revised Statutes, which legislators have the authority to revise in the future, we could have supported it. But a tobacco tax has no place in our constitution, and for that reason, residents should vote no on Amendment 35.

That said, we hope lawmakers develop the political courage to raise Colorado's tobacco taxes in the next session or that Citizens for a Healthier Colorado returns in 2005 with a statutory initiative to do so.

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