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EDITORIAL: Tobacco tax loophole needs to be closed

Wisconsin has an unfortunate loophole in its tobacco tax structure that allows roll-your-own cigarette products and some cigar products to avoid high taxation rates.

The state instituted higher taxes on tobacco products years ago to help discourage young people from starting the habit, and to encourage those who smoke to quit.

The tax tactic has worked here, as in other states. From 2010-11, total cigarette consumption in Wisconsin dropped 2.5 percent. Over the past 10 years, cigarette use has dropped 32.8 percent.

But the good news only goes so far. On the flip side, consumption of other tobacco products rose more than 17 percent from 2010-11, according to a recent Center for Disease Control report. How can that be?

Some businesses, including three in New Richmond alone, have found that the high user taxes related to cigarettes don't apply if someone comes in and buys the necessary loose tobacco and paper to create their own smokes. Some cigars are also exempt from the state tax laws.

As a result, the sale of pipe tobacco (the kind used in roll-your-own shops) has quintupled over the past 10 years.

Health officials agree -- tobacco remains the leading cause of preventable death in Wisconsin. About 8,000 Wisconsinites die each year from tobacco-related illnesses. Associated health care costs and lost productivity among smoking employees total $4.5 billion a year in this state alone.

It's time to close the loophole and tax all tobacco products the same. If a manufactured cigarette is bad for you, and thus requires a higher tax to help pay the costs associated with smoking-related diseases, then a roll-your-own smoke should be treated the same way. It shouldn't matter if the tobacco comes in a cigarette, in a pipe pouch or in a cigar.

Organizations such as SmokeFree Wisconsin are urging legislators to deal with the inequitable taxation issue in the next legislative session. From a public health standpoint, and from a fairness standpoint, it makes public policy sense.

Easy access and cheaper prices will only serve to attract more people toward tobacco use, and any increases in usage would eat away at the progress that anti-smoking campaigns have made over the past decade.

There's no doubt that eliminating the smoking habit will be next to impossible, but every effort made to try to achieve such a goal should be a top priority among lawmakers. Here's hoping that swift action comes to deal with the current tax situation.