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4/25/2015
New push for an island-wide tobacco tax

By NICK BOWMAN

Daily News Staff Writer

Several members of local government are once again attempting to create an island-wide tobacco tax.

The Cooperative Relations Committee, a joint group of the Ketchikan City Council and the Ketchikan Gateway Borough Assembly, unanimously voted to work toward an excise tax on cigarettes and tobacco products — including electronic cigarettes.

Sitting on the committee are City Council Members Dick Coose, Bob Sivertsen and DeAnn Karlson along with Assembly Members Todd Phillips and Bill Rotecki.

At its noon meeting on Friday, the committee voted to direct managers to work out a way for the two governments to cooperate on a tobacco tax.

The group didn’t decide on amounts for the tax, which would consist of a per-pack fee on cigarettes and a percentage of total cost applied to tobacco products. The taxes are levied on distributors, but the cost is commonly shifted to consumers through price increases.

The borough attempted to levy a similar tax in 2010. Estimates from that period have been used in the renewed discussion. Assembly members at the time were weighing a $1 per pack tax on cigarettes and a 45 percent tax on tobacco products.

It was estimated that the taxes would generate more than $600,000, most being generated in city limits.

The City Council generally has been more supportive of a tax than the Assembly, which couldn’t muster the votes to signal support for an excise tax at its April 6 meeting — though two members, Rotecki and James Van Horn, were absent.

Sivertsen said there was a “growing consensus” among the council to levy the excise tax regardless of what the Assembly decides, but noted council members were still “interested in an areawide tax” with the borough’s participation.

There were different motivations for support of the tax voiced on Friday.

Rotecki and Sivertsen supported the tax as a means of reducing the incidence of youth smoking.

“To me, it’s responsible,” Sivertsen said of the excise tax.

In his comments, Coose focused on revenue from the tax and was critical of e-cigarettes because of their potential to be used to consume marijuana. Phillips and Karlson voted to support the tax, but neither took hard stances on the issue, and Karlson didn’t speak at all.

However, Phillips said the tax was “something we should do together.”

It also hasn’t been determined how the tax revenue would be used. City representatives said it should be deposited into their general fund, while those from the borough wanted to direct it to community grants. Rotecki specifically said at least some of the revenue should be used for smoking prevention.

Borough Manager Dan Bockhorst noted that the borough’s economic development fund, from which it awards community grants, is expected be empty in two years.

Ketchikan Wellness Coalition employee Terrence Robbins has frequently spoken to local governments to support the excise tax as a way of reducing youth smoking.

He argued again on Friday that a tobacco tax is one of the most effective ways of reducing smoking among people 18 and younger.

Up to Friday, the inclusion of e-cigarettes, which include pure nicotine and lack the additives of conventional cigarettes, as a tobacco product had drawn more debate than other aspects of the tax.

However, at the meeting, speakers appeared to have decided that e-cigarettes belong in the tobacco products category.

Robbins referenced recently released figures from the Food and Drug Administration claiming that more than 13 percent of America’s youth have tried e-cigarettes.

The local debate mirrors arguments happening nationwide, with e-cigarette proponents saying the devices aren’t dangerous and help people give up actual cigarettes.

Proponents on restrictions and taxes claim the jury is still out, as there isn’t enough evidence to support claims that the devices aren’t dangerous.

“There's some data on both sides whether it's harmful or not,” Robbins said. “What is not questioned is that it's addictive, and it addicts you to tobacco products, and that it is a tobacco product — or a synthetic version of it.”

Coose was critical of e-cigarettes because people have used them to consume marijuana.

“It’s just another pipe,” he said.