UAMS Chancellor Cam Patterson joined legislative sponsors Thursday in cheering passage of legislation aimed at encouraging establishment of a national cancer research institute. Not discussed: the funding mechanism —pending legislation written in several ways helpful to Big Tobacco.


There’s at least irony, if  not hypocrisy, in extending a hand to the tobacco industry to support cancer research, particularly with the ongoing new debate on growth of electronic cigarettes and their health hazards.

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A question in coming days is whether medical professionals and others who’ve long campaigned against the ill effects of tobacco — an effort on which Arkansas has spent tens of millions thanks to the settlement of the massive class action suit against big tobacco — will speak up at the legislature.

It’s a sensitive topic. I’ve been unable so far to get comments from UAMS, lead sponsors Sen. Jonathan Dismang and Rep. Andy Davis, and health figures who’ve often crusaded against tobacco. The bill was introduced Wednesday and was expected to be fast-tracked, though I”ve been told questions might have slowed plans for a committee hearing Tuesday.

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The state is expected to provide $10 to $20 million a year for the cancer institute. How? Tobacco revenue, but the bill isn’t what it might seem at first blush. Said an opponent: “It’s regulatory relief and tax reduction for Big Tobacco.”

Opponents to the funding bill are going to seek some alternatives to the legislation. A common-sense and easy choice would be to preserve general revenue by reducing the tax cut windfall for the rich. But too late for that.

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Advocates of the pending bill contend that it is written so as not to require a three-fourths vote, though that’s likely to be contested.

Here’s the bill. The key elements:

* It raises the presumed cost of business, or retail markup on cigarettes, by two percent a pack, from 7.5 to 9.5 percent of the basic cost of the pack. This is a tax, effectively, but a very small one. A big per-pack tax on cigarettes would make more money and discourage smoking. But also reduce tobacco sales.

* The bill pre-empts new county, city or other local restrictions on the manufacture, sale, storage or distribution of tobacco products. This is HUGE. A spate of local ordinances curbing public use of tobacco led the way for state anti-smoking legislation. Big fights loom, for example on expanded rules on electronic cigarettes, or vaping.

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* A tax of 10 cents per milliliter on liquids sold for e-cigarette vaporizers. This is lower than the rate in many jurisdictions. UPDATE: One source told me this tax replaces the sales tax on vaping liquid; another says it does not. If it did, it would be a loss of general revenue.,

* And speaking of safety. You may have noticed that Big Tobacco is selling vaping  as safer and a means to “quit smoking.” But there’s more creativity afoot. Check this in the bill:

Modified risk tobacco products — Reduced rate of taxation.

Notwithstanding any other provision of the law to the contrary, a tax imposed under this chapter shall be reduced by the following amounts: Fifty percent (50%) for a product for which a modified risk tobacco product order has been issued by the United States Secretary of Health and Human Services under 21 U.S.C. § 387k(g)(1), as it existed on 13 January 1, 2019; and

(2) Twenty-five percent (25%) for a product for which a modified risk tobacco product order has been issued by the United States Secretary of Health and Human Services under 21 U.S.C. § 387k(g)(2), as it existed on January 1, 2019.

This says if the FDA held that a tobacco product reduced risk posed by regular cigarettes, it would qualify for a lower tax.

It so happens that Big Tobacco is trying to speed approval of a “modified risk product” by the FDA. It generates smokeless nicotine by heat, not fire. The tobacco companies contend it’s less harmful. These same companies lied about the dangers of tobacco, lied about low-tar cigarettes and lied about sidestream smoke. Trust them now? Maybe Arkansas should not take the lead on being credulous.

* Raise by 50 percent — from 4 percent to 6 percent — the tax rate on sale of medical marijuana by both cultivators and dispensaries. The cannabis amendment set a tax to pay for cost of regulating medical marijuana. This would add a sales tax on the product for other purposes. It would be the only prescription drug with a sales tax to produce extra revenue.

* Increase the tax on rolling papers by a bit more than 1.5 cents per rolling paper, or 50 cents for a pack of 32. Small change. But this amounts to a 50 percent tax increase on the poor doobie roller, who can find a pack online for a dollar with a little careful surfing.

Noted: James Miller, former staff chief for Dismang, is now lobbying for a tobacco company.

UPDATE: UAMS responded to my question about getting cancer research financing from legislation with benefits to tobacco companies. Said a spokesman:

UAMS has only been involved with SB151, which expressed state support for National Cancer Institute Designation for our Cancer Institute. We have had no involvement with any proposals or legislation to establish a funding mechanism. That is something that will be determined by the General Assembly.

Like I said: sensitive issue.

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