Research Shows State Legislators Willing To Tax Tobacco Products

August 05, 1997

CHAPEL HILL -- Most state legislators believe smokers are addicted to nicotine and that secondhand smoke can cause lung cancer in nonsmokers, according to a new University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill study. A majority would support increases in state tobacco excise taxes under certain conditions

The study, led by UNC-CH schools of medicine and public health researchers, showed that overall, 82 percent of lawmakers in North Carolina, Texas and Vermont would support stronger measures to prevent tobacco sales to children and teen-agers. Many legislators in Texas and Vermont would support increases in state cigarette excise taxes of $0.10 and $0.25, respectively.

Forty-three percent of N.C. lawmakers would go along with a tax increase if revenues went toward helping tobacco farmers diversify what they produce, researchers found. Forty percent of Tar Heel state representatives oppose any increase in tobacco taxes.

"These results demonstrate that state legislators in diverse settings, including the nation's leading tobacco state, share some common attitudes and experiences concerning tobacco," said lead author Dr. Adam O. Goldstein, assistant professor of family medicine. "For instance, 50 percent of legislators across states have had a relative or close acquaintance who they believed died from tobacco use."

A report on the study -- the first comprehensive effort to interview state legislators about tobacco -- appears in the current (July) issue of the American Journal of Public Health, published Friday, Aug. 1. Besides Goldstein, N.C. authors of the paper include Drs. Karl Baumann, professor of health behavior and health education at UNC-CH ; and Michael C. Munger, former professor of political science at UNC-CH and now at Duke University. Other authors are faculty members at the universities of Vermont and Texas.

While tobacco use continues to contribute to more than 400,000 deaths in the United States each year, comprehensive tobacco control legislation has yet to be enacted federally or in most state legislatures. Goldstein and colleagues surveyed state legislators in three states to assess knowledge of, attitudes about and voting intentions on tobacco-related issues.

The study population included 529 state legislators serving the three states during 1994, and of those, 444, or 84 percent, completed interviews.

Eighteen percent of respondents across states reported using tobacco products, Goldstein said. Ten percent were current smokers, 3 percent used snuff or chewing tobacco, 9 percent smoked cigars or pipes, and 5 percent used several forms. One in four legislators who smoked had tried to quit in the previous year.

Almost half of N.C. and Texas lawmakers and two-thirds of those in Vermont knew how many U.S. deaths resulted from tobacco. N.C. legislators were more likely than their out-of-state colleagues to underestimate the number of tobacco deaths, and Vermont legislators were more likely to overestimate that number.

Seventy-nine percent of Vermonters, 65 percent of Texans and 42 percent of North Carolinians agreed that secondhand smoke could cause lung cancer in nonsmokers, the UNC-CH study showed. Overall, three-quarters believed that smoking indoors in public places was not a right. Among smokers who had tried to quit in the past year, 82 percent thought tobacco's addictive qualities kept them and others from quitting.

Vermont legislators who would vote to prohibit cigarette vending machines except in bars outnumber their N.C. counterparts two to one. Almost the same percentage -- 58 percent -- would vote to eliminate indoor smoking at all work sites compared to 21 percent of N.C. lawmakers. Conversely, 53 percent of N.C. lawmakers would support state laws preempting local communities from passing their own stronger clean indoor air regulations, as compared with 12 percent of Texans and 13 percent of Vermonters.

"Since many legislators said they did not know, or did not believe, that secondhand smoke can cause lung cancer in nonsmokers, public health advocates must continue to vigorously educate policymakers about the research on environmental tobacco smoke and attempt to understand why some do not support clean air legislation despite knowing the scientific basis," Goldstein said. "Because of recent settlement talks about tobacco litigation, this study sheds light on potential issues policymakers should consider when thinking about tobacco addiction, public health and legislative decisions."

Note: Goldstein can be reached at (919) 966-4090 or paged at (919) 966-4131. Contact: David Williamson

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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