Cigarette Tax Renewal Campaign Comes to a Head, This Weekend

Roldo Bartimole and Fred Bidwell
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by David C. Barnett

The campaign to renew a cigarette tax that supports the arts in Cuyahoga County comes to a head, this weekend.  Backers of Issue 8 will fan out across region, armed with yard signs and door hangers.  Issue 8 organizers are trying to convince voters to renew a 30-cents-a-pack sales tax on cigarettes that’s near the end of its ten-year lifespan.  In 2006, voters in Cuyahoga County approved the tax to fund the work of area artists and arts organizations.  An agency called Cuyahoga Arts and Culture was created to distribute the proceeds --- over 125-million-dollars over the past decade. 

"Our challenge here is really awareness," says art collector Fred Bidwell.  "But, once we get the story out, people really believe in that story."

Bidwell is a co-chair of the Issue 8 political action committee which is trying to make voters aware that the tax is up for renewal, and that it’s different from a similar sin tax renewal on cigarettes and alcohol that was approved last year to upgrade local sports stadiums.  He points to a recent analysis by the Cleveland Plain Dealer that examined the relative impact of the two taxes.

"Arts and culture institutions attract more than twice the audience as the sports venues here in town, and more than half of those experiences are free.  So, if we think of the productivity of our two sin taxes, I’d say this one scores pretty well."

Veteran independent journalist Roldo Bartimole questions the idea of using sin taxes in the first place.

"It seems to be easy to tax cigarettes," he says.  "Not that many people complain, because not that many people smoke anymore.  So, it’s an easy one, and I think it’s unfair."

He argues that such taxes are “regressive” --- in other words they have a bigger impact on people with lower incomes.  The U.S. Centers for Disease Control reports that this population tends to smoke more than those of greater means.  Bartimole also questions a claim by cigarette tax supporters that raising the price on cigarettes actually discourages smoking --- especially by young people.

"That’s a good point," he says,  "but if you really want to disincline people from smoking, why not put that money into anti-smoking efforts?  They don’t do that."

Terry Pechacek  is a professor of Health Management and Policy at Georgia State University and a former analyst for the CDC.  He thinks there is significant health benefit in raising the prices of cigarettes. 

"If the money was taken from the poor and used for something like an income tax cut for the wealthy, that would be a problem," Pechacek says.  "But, when the money is going into something that reaches the underserved, the fact that the tax prevents youth from smoking --- and especially low income youth from starting to smoke --- then the regressive aspect is greatly reduced."

Issue 8 co-chair Fred Bidwell acknowledges that some of the County’s largest institutions have received a bigger portion of the cigarette tax pie.  But, he says that isn’t a fair gauge of the overall impact of the revenue.

"The Cleveland Orchestra, the Museum --- sure they benefit from the tax, but when you look at what proportion of their budget that tax fulfills, it’s tiny," he says.  "But, when you look at the small, grassroots organizations in Hough or Collinwood or Slavic Village, contributions from Cuyahoga Arts and Culture make up significant portions of their budgets.  And, in many cases, those organizations might not even exist without it."

The Issue 8 campaign has just a handful of days left to make its case.  The management team is also facing the challenge of an off-year election.  That's why, on November 3rd, they're planning on stationing people with signs at key polling places throughout the county in an attempt to get in one last pitch.

In the spirit of full disclosure, ideastream benefits from --- and the ideastream Board of Trustees supports --- the renewal of funding for Cuyahoga Arts and Culture 

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