The Ketchikan Gateway Borough Assembly rejected a motion Monday night that would have asked borough staff to draft a tobacco tax ordinance. The motion failed in a 2-3 vote, with two Assembly members absent.
The motion likely will come back, though. Assembly Member John Harrington, who had wanted to delay the vote until a full Assembly could consider it, voted against the motion and then announced that he would ask for reconsideration at a future meeting.
Only members on the prevailing side of a vote can call for reconsideration.
Earlier, during public comment, two people spoke in favor of a tobacco tax. Terrance Robbins of the Ketchikan Wellness Coalition gave the Assembly some statistics of cancer deaths in Alaska communities.
He compared the cancer rate in Juneau, which has a tobacco tax, to those in Ketchikan.
“Ketchikan’s cancer death rate is more than double Juneau’s,” he said. “We had more cancer deaths in 2012 than Juneau did, from lung cancer.”
Robbins stressed that most people start smoking as teenagers or young adults, and a tobacco tax could help deter young people from starting.
Sam Bergeron also spoke in favor of the proposed tobacco tax. He said he quit smoking many years ago when the state raised its excise tax on tobacco products, so increasing the cost can help people quit.
The proposed tobacco tax even came up during Schools Superintendent Robert Boyle’s regular report to the Assembly. He suggested that revenue from such a tax could be dedicated to public schools, which would help offset reduced funding elsewhere.
During Assembly discussion of the issue, Harrington asked that the motion be delayed, because two members were missing – Todd Phillips and Jim Van Horn. That request failed, though, with Assembly Members Glenn Thompson and Mike Painter voting no. At least four votes are required for a motion to pass.
With the main motion on the floor, Thompson led the charge against the proposal. He said making tobacco too expensive will simply create a gray or black market, and added that if it’s that horrible, the community should simply ban it.
“It’s all about the money and addicts make easy targets,” he said. “We already have enormous state and federal excite taxes on tobacco that provide ample revenue to provide anti-smoking campaigns, such as the local wellness coalition. We already have strict laws against minor purchase, possession and use of tobacco products. We should strictly enforce the existing laws if we want to restrict teen smoking.”
Painter also opposed the proposed tax, and said that most of its supporters just want the revenue.
“The vultures are circling,” he said. “Even the school district superintendent has got his hand out for the potential revenues.”
Other Assembly members took issue with that. Alan Bailey said his first consideration was whether such a tax could help save lives.
The proposal came from the Cooperative Relations Committee, which comprises borough and City of Ketchikan officials. Bailey is a member of that committee.
The proposal calls for a $3 a pack local excise tax, with an estimated revenue of up to $1.2 million a year. If Harrington follows through on asking for reconsideration, the issue could return for the Assembly’s July 6 regular meeting.