by Shelby Sebens, Northwest Watchdog
Oregon lawmaker wants to criminalize cigarettes, will settle for higher tax
PORTLAND – State Rep. Mitch Greenlick says nicotine is as dangerous as heroin and methamphetamine. He figures cigarettes ought to be illegal.
He knows it will never happen in Oregon. But that hasn’t stopped the Democratic lawmaker, who represents Portland and some unincorporated areas of surrounding Multnomah County. Since he took office in 2003, he’s been working for a higher cigarette tax in the state. And since 2009, he’s been pushing (you’ll pardon the pun) a bill that would make it a crime to possess nicotine without a physician’s prescription.
When the new legislative session starts in February, Greenlick will be at it again.
“My ultimate goal is not to make it illegal,” he said of smoking. “That’s just not going to happen. But my ultimate goal is to reduce smoking.”
The prescription bill, he said, is designed to get people talking.
That approach has drawn the ire of those who think government time should be spent on proposals that will actually move the needle. In the 2011 legislative session, Greenlick, in addition to his smoking prescription legislation, introduced a bill to tax soda pop and a proposal to prohibit children under 6 from riding in bike trailers.
“He had clogged up the legislature with a tidal wave of nanny-state bills that took away our freedom and personal responsibility,” Jason Williams, state director of the Taxpayer Association of Oregon, said.
Greenlick’s bills have won him the conservative group’s “Wiener Politician of the Year” award, also known as the “Worst Politician of the Year” among the associations’ members.
The idea to require prescriptions for smokes morphed out of a debate Greenlick was having with colleagues in 2009 over “the evils of tobacco” when someone asked him why he didn’t just push for it to be illegal.
State Rep. Mitch Greenlick wants smokers to get a prescription before lighting up
“I think people strongly felt that having politicians try to take more control away from our lives was a big negative,” Williams said. “For politicians to devote their time to things that will never happen vs. things that have to happen really only continue our budget crisis.”
Greenlick says his drive to raise cigarette taxes and reduce smoking comes from his many years in the medical field. He worked as director of the Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Research and vice president for research at Kaiser Foundation Hospitals for more than 30 years, until he retired in 1995.
“My work is personal. You spend so much time watching people die of heart attacks and smoking is a preventable cause,” he said, noting the many health conditions caused by smoking, including emphysema. “I believe I want to help every last smoker to stop smoking. It’s important to their life. It’s a very difficult way to die when you can’t breathe out.”
Greenlick, who is up for re-election in November, gets some financial support from the medical industry, including campaign contributions of $2,500 from the Oregon Nurses Political Action Committee and $500 from the Family Physicians of Oregon PAC this month, according to Secretary of State Elections Division campaign finance records. Republican Stevan Kirkpatrick is challenging Greenlick for the District 33 seat.
Greenlick wants to also increase the cigarette tax by about a dollar from its current rate at $1.18 a pack. That legislation could actually get some debate. It failed in 2011 by a vote of 30-30.
The state’s Legislative Revenue Office projects a $2 cigarette tax would bring in an additional $100 million. Greenlick has no plans to funnel more of that money into tobacco-cessation programs. The tobacco prevention program got about 11 million of the $410 million brought in by the cigarette tax in the 2009-2011 biennium. The rest went to the state’s general fund and other state and local agencies for undetermined purposes, according to the Oregon Department of Revenue.
Greenlick said he just hopes the increased tax will discourage smokers.
When compared to the rest of the country, Oregon is on the lower end of the cigarette tax spectrum, with the highest rate in New York at $4.35 a pack and Missouri at the lowest at 17 cents a pack. The federal government also increased the tax on a 20 pack of cigarettes by 39 cents to $1.01, according to data collected by facethefactsusa.org.
Northwest Watchdog is a project of the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity