Staff Columnist

Local governments pondering vice laws this legislative season

A person holds a cigarette while playing a machine at Riverside Casino and Golf Resort in Riverside on Monday, February 16, 2015. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
A person holds a cigarette while playing a machine at Riverside Casino and Golf Resort in Riverside on Monday, February 16, 2015. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

Local elected officials have weed, booze and cigarettes in mind this legislative season.

Municipal governments recently published their legislative priorities for 2019. The big items are predictable — they want to increase local control over their budgets and administrative policies, and also maintain or grow their various payments from the state government. I reviewed Johnson County’s and Iowa City’s agendas and found some more lively material — marijuana, alcohol and tobacco.

First, the good part. My local Board of Supervisors adopted bold stances on cannabis reform, asking policymakers to authorize industrial hemp, reclassify marijuana as a medically beneficial substance and expand the use of cannabinoids as medical therapy.

They didn’t stop there. The board also bluntly states in its legislative priorities, “Johnson County requests legalization of marijuana,” suggesting support for recreational marijuana, rather than just the medical products that have dominated Iowa’s policy discussions.

The county has made meaningful progress in recent years at reforming the justice system and controlling the jail population. Those efforts are somewhat hampered by badly outdated state prohibition laws.

“Legalization of marijuana” is not quite as good as the “legalize all drugs” plank in the Iowa Democratic Party’s 2016 platform, but it may be a sign of positive progress in the fight to destigmatize drug use. Even in far-left Eastern Iowa, government officials have often been reluctant to call for full legalization. If Johnson County politicians can get on board with legal pot, the rest of the state can’t be more than a few decades behind.

Then there’s the bad part. The Iowa City Council’s legislative priorities, a separate document from the county’s, calls for “common sense reform to alcohol licensing policies.” Leaders say current laws are inadequate for cities to enforce alcohol regulations.

For many years, Iowa City officials have struggled to restrict underage and excessive drinking, especially in downtown bars and residential areas near the University of Iowa campus. Their efforts have sometimes been stymied by state rules and regulations.

In 2010, the state Alcoholic Beverages Division ruled that an Iowa City policy to revoke liquor licenses from establishments with ratios of police visits to underage drinking citations at a certain level. City lawyers opted not to appeal that ruling, since local voters later upheld the city’s 21-and-older ordinance for visiting bars at night.

Even without the local control over liquor licenses the city is seeking, there are signs Iowa City and UI have made meaningful progress at reducing dangerous partying. The National College Health Assessment published last year showed students engaging in high-risk drinking has dropped significantly in the past five years.

Instead of brainstorming new and innovative ways to regulate the bars, the city should stay the course and let current policies work.

And finally, there’s the ugly side of local legislative priorities. In Johnson County’s lengthy list, 30 proposals in all, the supervisors call for a huge hike in Iowa’s cigarette tax.

The board laments it has been more than a decade since the tobacco tax was increased, and it currently sits below the national average. They want to increase the tax by more than double, which would make Iowa’s the 10th highest in the nation, just a penny behind California, according to the Tax Foundation.

It seems like a noble public policy crusade. County officials point to American Cancer Society figures showing an additional $1.50 tax on each pack of cigarettes would prevent about 13,000 Iowa kids from becoming smokers, and lead about 19,000 adults to quit, all while generating more state revenue.

Public health advocates have so frequently repeated the claim that higher cigarette taxes lead to significantly fewer smokers that it’s seldom challenged in public policy discussions. Yet there are reasons to be skeptical.

It’s difficult to discern the effects because smoking rates have already been declining over many years. What’s more, since state cigarette taxes have ballooned over the past few decades, there may be diminishing returns for future tax hikes. That is, the people who are still smoking are the most committed smokers, and less likely to quit in the face of another price increase.

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One 2012 study from the National Bureau of Economic Research reviewed existing literature about the link between taxes and smoking rates. Researchers found a 100 percent increase in taxes was associated with just a 5 percent decrease in adult smoking, a fraction of the impact the American Cancer Association estimates.

Since poor people are more likely to smoke — 25 percent of impoverished Americans smoke, compared to just 14 percent of all others, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — Johnson County’s proposal is a regressive tax that may not even achieve its intended goal of reducing cigarette consumption.

• Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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