JACKSON — Between Devil’s Tower and the South Dakota state line, along a pine-covered hillside, sits Aladdin, population 15. Father-son duo Maynard and Lee Rude own most of the town, including its mobile-home park, gas station and 125-year-old mercantile.
Like a lot of Wyoming border towns, Aladdin, especially its general store, survives on out-of-towners spending their money there. Unlike other towns, which might eke out existences on outdoor recreation tourism, Aladdin benefits from the sale of a particular product: tobacco.
“They have good bacon, too,” said Rep. Tyler Lindholm, R-Crook/Weston, whose district includes Aladdin. “South Dakota has a much higher cigarette tax. People will come buy their tobacco, then they end up buying other stuff.”
Lindholm, a fierce opponent of tobacco taxes, believes establishments like the Aladdin General Store would be the casualties of a push from the American Cancer Society to raise tobacco taxes in the Equality State. A new report from the Cancer Society’s nonpartisan advocacy arm, the Cancer Action Network, says Wyoming’s per-pack cigarette tax, which is well below the national average, should be substantially increased to combat tobacco and e-cigarette use in the state’s teens.
The report, titled “How Do you Measure Up,” compares states’ legislative actions to combat cancer, including access to Medicaid, restrictions on indoor tanning devices and tobacco prevention efforts. It found Wyoming to be deficient in seven of eight areas, saying only the state’s access to palliative care met its standards.
Wyoming’s tobacco laws and taxes were of particular interest to the nonprofit.
“We are very concerned about our tobacco tax rate, given the state has above-average rates for tobacco use, especially among our high schoolers and pregnant women,” Jason Mincer, the nonprofit’s government relations director for Wyoming, said in a press release.
The Cancer Action Network is calling for a $1.50 increase in the state’s cigarette tax. At 60 cents, Wyoming has the eighth-lowest cigarette tax in the country, something the nonprofit advocacy center says contributes to preventable deaths from cancer. It says nearly 1,000 people in Wyoming will die from cancer this year, with almost 30% of those from tobacco use.
According to studies, including a 1999 World Bank report and a 2011 literature review in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, tobacco taxes are an effective method of curbing tobacco use.
“Evidence from countries of all income levels shows that price increases on cigarettes are highly effective in reducing demand,” reads the World Bank report.
However, that study also says raising tobacco taxes and reducing demand can have unintended consequences. It points out that in 1999 the economies of some countries in sub-Saharan Africa were almost entirely dependent on the tobacco industry, meaning that reductions in smoking in developed nations would have deleterious economic effects on them and that tobacco taxes disproportionately affect lower-income people.
Lindholm said efforts to raise taxes at the state level would be similar.
“What would end up happening,” he said, “is that no one would have any reason to come to Aladdin, so that general store folds up.”
He said towns like Aladdin are at an advantage because of Wyoming’s low cigarette taxes. Some Mountain West states have similar rates, like Idaho (57 cents) and Nebraska (64 cents), but Montana ($1.70) and South Dakota ($1.53) have substantially higher per-pack taxes. That pushes border residents in those states into Wyoming, increasing economic activity in small towns with few other sources of income.
Even before the Cancer Action Network released its report, the idea of raising taxes has been on the minds of some state legislators. Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Laramie, sponsored a bill in 2019, along with Rep. Bob Nicholas, R-Laramie, and Sens. Stephan Pappas, R-Laramie, and Charles Scott, R-Natrona, that would have raised the tax to $1.60 per pack, a large increase that still would have kept Wyoming below the national average.
The bill didn’t make it out of committee, with the Revenue Committee voting it down 5-4. Lindholm and Rep. Mike Yin, D-Teton, said the Legislature doesn’t seem to have much appetite for revisiting the tobacco tax in the upcoming budget session.
“I don’t think it is anything we are currently talking about,” Yin said.
That being said, Yin and public health practitioners in Teton County think that regardless of whether a tax on tobacco products progresses, e-cigarettes are something lawmakers should tackle. The Cancer Action Network’s report on Wyoming said 30% of Wyoming teens reported using e-cigarettes, and it encouraged legislators to add e-cigarettes to the pantheon of products covered by Wyoming laws.
Although data from Network of Care says just 12% of Teton County adults report using any kind of tobacco products, Curran-Seeley Executive Director Trudy Birkmeyer Funk said teens are increasingly using e-cigarettes.
“What we’ve been seeing for the last three years, really saw an increase in teens using e-cigarettes,” she said, “the most popular being the Juul.”
Funk said she wasn’t sure if taxes were the right option to limit e-cigarette use. Rather, she said, community education and awareness programs were the most important aspect of reducing e-cigarette use. Curran-Seeley is working with Teton County School District No. 1 to create programs that educate kids about the effects of nicotine and the unknown chemicals used in devices like Juuls.
At a national level, she said, legislative efforts to limit the use of flavored e-cigarettes were appropriate, given that federal and state regulations bar advertising tobacco and nicotine products to children, as well as making products tailored for them.
“I think that is excellent that they’re being asked to speak to that and defend why they need these fun flavors,” she said.
Yin said he would be in favor of the Legislature taking up a tax on e-cigarettes, but his colleague, Lindholm, expressed a firm distaste for the idea. He said taxes on e-cigarettes, just like on tobacco, would be harmful to stores like the mercantile in Aladdin and the families that run them like the Lees, who were to busy for an interview because they were selling products to motorcyclists on their way to the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota.
Rather, Lindholm thinks families should educate their children and that when it comes to adults’ choices to use tobacco, it’s not up to the state.
“People have the right to make their own decisions,” he said.