Gov. wrong on dentist tax

The Vermont House rejected the Shumlin administration’s effort to raise almost $4 million by assessing a 3-percent provider tax on dentists. Instead, legislators opted to raise the same $4 million through a 26-cent tax on a pack of cigarettes. The governor is pushing the Senate to restore the tax on dentists, saying it’s misguided to punish people with an addiction.
The governor’s argument is easy to understand in a strictly political sense. It’s a populist argument pitting dentists against the poor who smoke. One group has resources, the other does not. One group is advantaged, the other disadvantaged.
On the stump, he thinks he wins.
But the governor is wrong in a policy sense, and perhaps politically as well.
He assumes, for instance, that smoking is most prevalent among the poor; and it is if the adult population is considered by its lonesome. It’s not true for our youth. Recent studies show that youth with greater disposable incomes smoke more than youth with less disposable income. And it’s with our youth that the addiction begins.
Studies also show solid economic evidence that demand is affected by price, for adults and youth, but far more so for our children. Our youth pay less attention to the health consequences of smoking than adults — sad to say — but pay strict attention to price — about six times more than adults aged 40 and above, according to studies. Further, according to the evidence, if the price increases are maintained at an inflation-adjusted 10 percent, the rate of cessation among our youth increases by 10-11 percent.
That cessation rate is crucial when one factors in the health care costs associated with tobacco use.
In other words, raising the price of cigarettes is the right thing to do. We need to reduce the percentage of our youth who are inclined to pick up the habit. It would save thousands of lives and millions in costs.
The tax on dentists would do neither. It raises money; that’s it.
The governor’s populist argument is off-base in several respects. First, only 18 percent of Vermonters smoke, so the numbers are not on his side. Second, any tax levied against dentists is not being considered — at this time — a permanent fixture. Revenue is limited to the next fiscal year. Isn’t it a stronger populist argument to push for revenue that lasts, revenue that could be used to fund human services, etc.? What happens next year? Will the governor propose to extend the provider tax on dentists, should he prevail?
The governor should also consider that raising the cost of dental services has a public health side to it as well. If fewer people go too the dentist because of raised costs, then more of us will suffer the health care costs associated with poor dental health. That’s no small thing. Isn’t he hurting the very constituency he’s trying to help?
House legislators seemed to recognize this. They saw a rather stark difference between the governor’s proposal and their own. Both proposals would raise the same amount of money, but the tax on cigarettes reduces use, produces significant health benefits and saves lives. The tax on dentists raises the price on dental care of all of us, produces revenue for a year, pushes more people away from their dentists and sets a lousy precedent.
The governor may see the political benefit of siding with 18 percent of the population, and trying to make the state’s dentists bad guys, but it’s doubtful his argument will get much traction among Vermonters. It doesn’t make a lick of sense. Let’s hope the Senate will follow the House’s lead.
Emerson Lynn
St. Albans Messenger

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