Cigarette Tax: A Learnable Moment

Educators talk about “teachable moments”– those times when learning comes easily because something happens that makes information relevant. This is one of those times for people concerned about public funding for the arts in Cuyahoga County.

As if to highlight the need to find something other than a cigarette tax to provide such revenue,  a recent State of Ohio budget proposed by Governor Mike DeWine included provision to hike the legal smoking age from 18 to 21, statewide.

To be clear, that’s good news. Smoking is bad for you, and it is bad for the people around you, and when you smoke in public it damages the air for anyone nearby.

As Fred Bidwell, chair of the PAC Arts and Culture Action Committee said, “One of the successes of the tobacco tax that supports Cuyahoga Arts and Culture is that it has had a role in reducing smoking in Cuyahoga County.”

But as we wrote when Cuyahoga County voters approved the tax in 2016, “what is good for society . . . is bad for the public funding of art.” Indeed, with revenue from the cigarette tax already declining, the  Governor’s proposal would mark an unanticipated acceleration in the long-running trend. Cuyahoga Arts and Culture recently adjusted its funding levels based on a three-year lookback, and projected continued declines. Those cuts caused quite a stir.  But CAC had no way of anticipating that a change in the law could make matters worse. Or that DeWine’s proposal would come on the heels of a law recently passed in Lakewood to do the same. So it is entirely likely that further cuts are coming.

The City of Cleveland made the same change in 2016. The Plain Dealer reported at that time that “young adults between the ages of 18 and 20 make up only two percent of cigarette sales — but represent 90 percent of the suppliers to kids under 18.”

And whatever revenue impact the change would have in the short term, the effect will compound over time because fewer people would start smoking as teens.

“CAC revenue has declined every year since our inception – regardless of the minimum age for cigarette sales,” says CAC spokesperson Jacob Sinatra.  “Fewer people are smoking each year, as predicted.  Should the State change minimum purchase age to 21, we will certainly factor that into our forecasting. For now, we continue to make realistic predictions about revenue and control our expenses accordingly.”

However that shakes out, it’s time to look ahead—far ahead—and develop another plan—one that places equity and sustainability above short term political strategy.

Because just 17.8 percent of adults smoke (according to the Centers for Disease Control in 2016), it’s less than one in five of us contributing to public funding of the arts. The vast majority of artists and arts administrators familiar to CAN are not among them. As we search for a new tax, wouldn’t it be great if everyone had skin in the game, and if we didn’t have to balance healthy public funding against unhealthy lungs? And if (because African Americans smoke in greater proportions than the rest of the population) the source of public funding for the arts did not exacerbate racial tension? And if art organizations could count on steady—rather than declining—public dollars?

The search for something new is underway, but details are scarce. As Arts Cleveland president and CEO Megan Van Voorhis said, “we must not let a scarcity mindset cloud the thoughtful strategic work that must happen to secure a stable and–dare I venture–growing source of public investment in arts and culture in the future. Building the case for support in today’s climate and with today’s competing interests is foundational to that effort, as will be uniting arts and culture stakeholders around it. That is where our work at Arts Cleveland is centered right now.”

As Bidwell says, “Arts stakeholders in Cuyahoga County are exploring the possibility of alternate sources of funding to supplement the declining revenues from the tobacco tax. We believe that there is a very strong case for finding and maintaining sustainable sources for public arts funding based on the proven positive economic and social impact of arts and culture in our communities, however no new strategies have been decided upon as of yet.”

Several possibilities come to mind: A wine tax. Or a beer and wine tax. Or a hotel bed tax. Or a property tax. Almost all of these would spread the cost over much larger segment of the population, and take the bulk of the burden away from lower income people.  Of course it is entirely possible that the planners make minor tweaks on the nicotine addiction theme by adding loose tobacco, cigars, and vaping tools, accessories, and supplies.

But the governor’s proposal and the changes already made by individual cities create what you might call a “learnable moment.”  Let’s take the opportunity to make a new plan.


Collective Arts Network is proud to have received Project Support from Cuyahoga Arts and Culture. 




The opinions expressed on CAN Blog are those of the individual writers. Art is somewhat subjective. Well, somewhat. But yes, everybody's a critic.

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