Is Big Tobacco Using Healthy Start to Do Its Dirty Work?

Is Big Tobacco Using Healthy Start to Do Its Dirty Work?

Like many nonprofits that depend on government funding, the Florida Association of Healthy Start Coalitions is facing cuts. The organization that focuses on prenatal and infant health may have 22 percent trimmed from its 2009 budget.  Unlike other nonprofits, however, the organization has proposed a solution.

Healthy Start recently wrote to Governor Crist asking him to start charging a 40-cent-per-pack tax on cigarettes made by small tobacco companies.  The country's three biggest tobacco producers, the letter points out, have been making contributions of approximately 45 cents per pack into the Lawton Chiles Trust Fund ever since the historic $206 billion tobacco settlement in 1998. That money is in turn used for smoking-related health care and anti-smoking initiatives. Smaller tobacco companies were dismissed from the lawsuit.

Well, maybe it is time for the generic cigarette-makers to throw in... Hey, wait! This sounds suspiciously like the kind of proposal you might hear from a lobbyist for Big Tobacco looking to snuff out the competition.

It's true that with Marlboros and Camels creeping up toward $5 a pack, smokers started switching to budget ciggies that can be had for as little as $1.67.  While the small companies used to compete for just two or three percent of all cigarette sales, they now enjoy about 20 percent of the market, the Healthy Start letter says. 

Sarah Bascom is a spokesperson for Dosal, a family-owned Opa-Locka company that manufactures cigarette brands 305, Romy, and Competidora.  She suggests that Healthy Start's tax-hike proposal is a result of shady backstage maneuvering and mischaracterization of the issue by the competitors: "Our market share has gone up -- and Big Tobacco wants it back."   Bascom asserts that small companies like Dosal were exempted from the tobacco lawsuit precisely because they weren't guilty.  They didn't engage in false advertising or target minors with cartoons of smoking camels. The company's smokes sell because of one reason, Bascom says: the price point. "We do not advertise, we do not market, we did not say 'cigarettes don't cause cancer."   

Bascom says has an interesting solution: tax 'em all!  "We respect Healthy Start.  They're a wonderful, noble nonprofit," she says. There's already a 33.9-cent state tax on every pack of cigarettes sold, and "we would support a raise in an across-the-board excise tax -- but not a targeted tax on Dosal." Representatives from Healthy Start did not return calls by press time.     

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