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Texas senator’s push on legal age for tobacco collides with math

By   /   February 20, 2013  /   No Comments

By Mark Lisheron | Texas Watchdog

SMOKING AGE: A Texas state senator wants to increase the legal age to buy tobacco products.

AUSTIN – As state Sen. Carlos Uresti should know by now, the Texas Legislature has no intention of raising the legal age for buying tobacco.

Oh, they like the idea of it all right. A lawmaker likes nothing better than to feel good about himself passing a law protecting people from themselves. Live Tobacco-Free Austin, for example, exists because Congress saw fit to include $372.8 million in wellness programs in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the stimulus bill passed in 2009.

The program lives on this year through a $7.5 million grant from the Centers for Disease Control, an allotment tucked away in some long forgotten but self-perpetuating federal legislation.

Uresti’s interest in your welfare goes well beyond your lungs, cheeks and gums. His Senate Bill 317 filed in this session is sensitive to teen waistlines by prohibiting public schools from stocking their vending machines with beverages with sugar added.

Uresti certainly is a believer. In every session prior to this one since joining the Senate in 2007, Uresti has introduced a bill to raise the tobacco age from 18 to 19. That year, the Senate passed the bill by a vote of 26-4. When no one in the House would sponsor the bill, it died, just like the rest of Uresti’s bills.

With a counterintuitive flourish, Uresti decided with Senate Bill 313 to skip over 19 and go right to 21. No state in the Union has a 21-year-old law, and only Alabama, Alaska, New Jersey and Utah have managed to bump up the age to 19.

“We wanted to be consistent,” Uresti told Texas Watchdog. “You can’t drink until you’re 21, why should you be able to smoke before you’re 21?”

Uresti brought the bill before the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, of which he is a member, on Tuesday. Included in the documentation was an estimate by the state Legislative Budget Board of what the bill might cost in lost tax revenue should tobacco become illegal for 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds.

Factoring a drop in sales of 33 percent, the Legislature would have to make do with $42.6 million less over the next two years and nearly $100 million over the next five. Assuming the Budget Board estimateis based on real tax collection, this youthful segment of the smoking and chewing market puts more than $127 million on the state collection plate every two years.

CARLOS URESTI

CARLOS URESTI: The Texas state senator concedes that taxes on cigarettes “help us balance our budget.”

All nannying aside, Uresti’s own committee told him he might want to rethink his bill. Even by the government spending standards of 2013, $42.6 million is still a lot of money.

The irony was not lost on Uresti.

“We’re relying on 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds to smoke cigarettes to help us balance our budget,” he said. “You wonder whether the Legislature will get addicted to those revenues.”

You wonder.

Just as he has for four sessions, Uresti isn’t giving up. At the bottom of its fiscal analysis, the Legislative Budget Board stipulated that Texas might one day realize savings in reduced costs of health care from keeping tobacco away from young adults.

The savings, the Budget Board said, were at this time indeterminate. Before the session is over, Uresti said he wants the board to make those savings determinate.

And if that fails, Uresti said he might be willing to help the state recover the lost tobacco tax revenue by adding a few cents tax onto a pack of cigarettes or a tin of snuff for those 21 and older who are still able to decide for themselves.

Anything to help smokers and spitters realize the error of their wicked ways.

Contact Mark Lisheron at mark@texaswatchdog.org or at 512-299-2318. On Twitter at @marktxwatchdog.

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