TOPICS > Politics

Oregon Seeks Tobacco Tax to Fund Children’s Health

November 2, 2007 at 6:35 PM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: Now, raising tobacco taxes to pay for children’s health care. As Congress and the White House sparred over the issue, Oregon residents are voting on a similar plan in their state. Correspondent Lee Hochberg of Oregon Public Broadcasting reports.

LEE HOCHBERG, NewsHour Correspondent: Five-year old Ethan Russell wasn’t letting his asthma ruin a perfect autumn day.

ETHAN RUSSELL, Asthma Sufferer: I can go super fast with these long legs!

LEE HOCHBERG: But his parents, Lisa and David, watched him warily. For two years, the Salem couple has been unable to afford, on David’s truck driver salary, the $700 per month needed to pay for health insurance for Ethan and his brother. Ethan’s asthma makes that especially risky.

LISA RUSSELL, Parent: What if he has an asthma attack and it’s so bad that we can’t keep him home? We don’t want to think about it. I mean, it’s scary to think about. When he goes to the hospital for his asthma, it’s days on end. I mean, we would be talking about thousands and thousands of dollars.

LEE HOCHBERG: The family spent $5,000 of their $40,000 annual income last year on treatments to prevent any attacks.

ETHAN RUSSELL: One time, I hurt in my — I felt something in the back of my lungs. And then it’d go away, but it makes me cough, and I cough a lot.

AD NARRATOR: Ethan Russell has asthma. His lungs close up, and he struggles to breathe. But his family…

LEE HOCHBERG: The family has let Ethan be used as the poster child for statewide ballot Measure 50, which would increase the tobacco tax to fund health care for 114,000 uninsured Oregon children. Supporters unveiled a new commercial last week.

AD NARRATOR: Join over 80 groups in helping Ethan and all of Oregon’s kids. Yes on 50.

LEE HOCHBERG: Oregon medical, child, business and labor advocates all are campaigning for the statewide measure.

LISA RUSSELL: There’s got to be a middle ground where it’s affordable, because Ethan needs it.

LEE HOCHBERG: Oregon’s measure would assess a new 85-cent-per-pack tax on cigarettes, raising $152 million in the next two years for children’s health insurance. To qualify, families would have to earn under 200 percent of the federal poverty level, about $41,000 for a family of four. It would also fund health care for 10,000 low-income adults.

Portland physician Dr. Alison Mitchell says, for children, access to health care is crucial.

DR. ALISON MITCHELL, Family Practitioner: You see children with developmental delay because it’s not picked up early and they don’t get the treatment that they need. You see children with chronic cough, where it turns out and it’s asthma, something fairly simple to treat, if they had insurance to cover their medications and for regular medical visits. You see children who are not getting their vaccinations because their families are limited as to access and they can’t come in.

CAMPAIGNER: Have you voted yet?

OREGON VOTER: No. I’m going to vote for it, but I don’t know all the details, actually.

Support for smoker's tax

LEE HOCHBERG: Fewer than 20 percent of Oregonians are smokers, but the election appears tight, so supporters are aggressively working Portland neighborhoods. At least 15 other states tax tobacco to pay for health care, but ballot measures in California and Missouri last year were defeated. In California, the tobacco industry poured $60 million into the fight against the measure.

AD NARRATOR: Measure 50 to increase Oregon's tobacco tax sounds like a good idea, but is it?

LEE HOCHBERG: This time, North Carolina-based R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris have launched an $11 million media blitz in Oregon, more money to fight a ballot measure than any in Oregon history. Those who back the tax have raised only a quarter of that.

Voting in Oregon is by mail and has already begun. At Rich's Cigar Store in Portland, smokers we talked to were split on the issue, but a surprising number didn't object to a tax.

FRED BLANCHARD, Smoker: I'm voting to tax tobacco. If you've got a substance that causes people to get sick, then that substance -- i.e., the tobacco companies -- should have to pay for the carnage that they're creating. So put a tax on it, absolutely.

LEE HOCHBERG: Voters like Shannon Tupper are more conflicted. Tupper smokes, but her diabetic son had to be hospitalized, and she faces thousands of dollars in ongoing medical costs.

SHANNON TUPPER, Parent: Right there alone was $6,000, just for that. This here, these are about $30 a pop and every three days. It's over $700 a month just to maintain his diabetes. It adds up so fast, it's incredible.

LEE HOCHBERG: The Tuppers can afford an insulin pump and other equipment only because they qualify for Oregon's health plan for the low-income. If Shannon Tupper goes back to work, her family would lose that coverage, but still be unable to afford private insurance.

They would seem to be the prototype family Measure 50 is designed to help, but Tupper is lukewarm about it.

SHANNON TUPPER: I don't think it should just be the cigarettes they're going after. It's not the only bad thing out there, and there's lots of people that do other bad things, too, that can help pay. It's not because we smoke that the kids get sick. Keith didn't get diabetes because we smoke cigarettes.

LEE HOCHBERG: Her argument was echoed at a recent debate in Salem.

J.L. WILSON, Tobacco Industry Lobbyist: So now what are we doing? We're taxing a convenient minority who has a habit that's unpopular. They're easy to pick on.

LEE HOCHBERG: Industry lobbyist J.L. Wilson contended that, since smokers didn't cause the uninsurance problem, they shouldn't have to pay to fix it.

J.L. WILSON: What does an Oregon smoker have to do with the problem of uninsurance with kids today? Can you make a logical argument that, because somebody lights up and smokes, they're somehow responsible for 117,000 kids being uninsured?

Opposing tobacco tax

LEE HOCHBERG: He acknowledged that the tax could discourage 30,000 Oregon children from ever starting to smoke, but he argues it's an unwise way to fund health care, the same argument that's been pushed at the federal level.

J.L. WILSON: The illogic of using a smoking tax to fund health care is people quit smoking, you have no health care. And so you're rooting for one behavior, which is for people to quit, but on the back of that, you're trying to fund a program with money that you hope disappears, and it makes no sense.

LEE HOCHBERG: Advocates of Measure 50 answer tobacco causes more than $1 billion a year in health care costs in Oregon, so taxing it makes a lot of sense. State Representative Sara Gelser.

SARA GELSER (D), State Representative: We know that exposure to secondhand smoke causes tens of thousands of hospital admissions every year for children, and it is one of the driving, leading causes of physician visits for cough and respiratory infection in infants and toddlers.

LEE HOCHBERG: She doubts the funding source will ever dry up.

SARA GELSER: No matter how hard we might try, we cannot get everyone to quit smoking, and they won't. So we know that, into the foreseeable future, this is going to be, unfortunately, a very stable revenue source.

Tobacco industry objection

LEE HOCHBERG: In a state with a relatively small number of smokers to fight the tax, the tobacco industry's media campaign is focusing on the fact that legislators submitted the tax as a constitutional amendment. They did that because they didn't have enough votes to put it on the ballot as just a statute.

ADVERTISEMENT ACTRESS: Measure 50, did you know it amends our Constitution?

ADVERTISEMENT ACTOR: Well, wait a minute. I thought it was a tobacco tax.

ADVERTISEMENT ACTRESS: Yes, in the Constitution.

ADVERTISEMENT ACTOR: Taxes on specific products locked into the Oregon Constitution?

ADVERTISEMENT ACTRESS: That's the way the politicians wrote it, so these taxes can never be changed without another constitutional amendment.

ADVERTISEMENT ACTOR: Oregon's never done that before.

LEE HOCHBERG: The Oregon Constitution actually has been amended many times in the last 20 years. Nonetheless, the TV campaign's concern about amending it is being repeated often on Oregon streets. Even David Russell, Ethan Russell's father, says he might vote against amending it.

DAVID RUSSELL, Parent: It's something that -- has been started our country. It's something that has started the law. That was our basis of our laws.

LISA RUSSELL: A hundred and something years ago, when things were a lot different.

DAVID RUSSELL: And it still works pretty good.

LEE HOCHBERG: Measure 50 supporters bristle at the industry tactic, noting big tobacco argued the exact opposite way last year in Ohio, when it pushed for a constitutional amendment to make smoke-free ordinances illegal. The campaign is trying to get that word out in the last days before ballots are due in Oregon Tuesday.

RAY SUAREZ: Back here in Washington, President Bush vowed yesterday to veto for the second time a federal children's health insurance program. Legislation cleared Congress yesterday, but without a veto-proof majority in the House of Representatives.