Healthier Colorado, a Denver-based nonprofit advocacy group that was spun off and seed-funded by the Colorado Health Foundation three years ago, has proposed a state constitutional amendment that would substantially raise taxes on tobacco products.

Drafted by Denver attorney Mark Grueskin, the amendment was formally filed Thursday (April 21) morning. Amendment 143 will increase taxes on a pack of cigarettes by $1.75, as well as institute a 22 percent statewide tobacco products tax on “the sale, use, consumption, handling or distribution of tobacco products by distributors.” It’s estimated that the taxes will raise approximately $198 million annually.

Proposed revenue

The projected numbers:

• $53 million (27 percent) for research at Colorado medical research centers into treatment for the prevention of cancer, heart and lung disease, Alzheimer’s disease and money for youth mental health.

• $31 million (16 percent) to make Colorado just one of two states to meet Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations for funding tobacco education, prevention and cessation programs for Colorado’s youth and adults.

• $27 million (14 percent) to fund unmet medical and mental health needs for 500,000 veterans.

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• $20 million (10 percent) to expand access to youth behavioral health services.

• $20 million (10 percent) to provide competitive grants for infrastructure improvements designed to increase access to oral, behavioral and medical care in rural and underserved areas.

• $10 million (5 percent) to provide student debt repayment and professional training tracks targeted at medical professionals serving rural and underserved areas of Colorado.

• $36 million (18 percent) that would go to current tobacco tax funding recipients to compensate for tax revenue reductions due to lower tobacco use once the new tax is in place.

Varied support

Already, the United Veterans Council of Colorado, the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, the American Heart Association and the American Lung Association support the proposed ballot issue.

Revenue streams from the initiative are specifically exempt from the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights or any other spending limitation, and can only be used to supplement, not supplant, other revenue appropriated by the Colorado General Assembly.

By specifically designating seven different classes of recipients, the amendment might draw significant voter support.

Next steps

“The initiative has been under discussion for about a year,” said Mike Melanson of Insight Public Affairs, who is in the process of shepherding the initiative through the title-setting process. “The serious process has been underway for about three months.”

Melanson believes that the initiative will be an easy sell.

“When voters look at the (tobacco tax) increase that was passed in 2004, they’ll certainly feel that it has had a positive impact,” Melanson said. “It’s a presidential election year, and we believe that this measure will have broad support across the electorate.”

And while Healthier Colorado estimates annual revenues of $198 million from the new tax, the actual number may be higher.

“The Legislative Council’s estimate is above ours,” Melanson noted, “so we’re trying to (reconcile) the two numbers. We still have a lot of work to do — title setting, possible challenges, but we think we’ll be out gathering signatures in the next few weeks.”

Will the campaign use paid signature gatherers?

“In all likelihood, yes,” said Meanson.