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April 24th, 2013 12:01 am MATT KAUFFMAN, AARON MESH | News Stories

Smoke Brakes

Cigarettes will stay cheap in Oregon—whether or not Multnomah County gets to levy its own tobacco tax.


Portland smokers, hold on to your butts: Multnomah County wants the right to tax your cigarettes, and now the state of Oregon might be looking to increase the price of a pack as well.

Thanks to relatively low state tobacco taxes, cigarettes in Portland stores are inexpensive compared to those in other major cities—as low as $4 a pack, in contrast to New York City’s standard $10.

SOURCES: Oregon Department of Revenue, Federation of Tax Administrators, The Tax Foundation, Tobacco Free Kids, San Francisco Department of Public Health, King County Department of Public Health, Hennepin County Department of Public Health, Denver Department of Revenue, North Caroina Public Health

The difference you pay is in the tax. Oregon levies a tax of $1.18 a pack, but makes it illegal for local governments to add their own. 

Not so elsewhere: New York City tacks on $1.50 (more than Oregon as a whole) to the $4.35 state tax.

A bill to grant counties taxing authority on cigarettes was narrowly passed by the Oregon House on April 4. But the bill is now in the state Senate, where tobacco taxes traditionally die.

The Senate rejected proposed tobacco-tax hikes in 2007 and 2011, after voters in 2003 actually reduced the tax by 10 cents a pack. 

Cigarette taxes are routinely opposed by the tobacco lobby and by Plaid Pantry convenience stores, which get business from Washington smokers driving across the Columbia River to buy cigarettes. (Cigarette taxes in Washington state, at $3.03 a pack, are more than twice as high as Oregon’s.)

The bill would allow counties to match the state’s cigarette tax.

But Multnomah County Commissioner Deborah Kafoury says county officials aren’t looking to bump up the price by nearly that much—they want to discourage young people from taking up smoking without sacrificing local retail business from customers who aren’t quitting.

“We’ve talked about 50 cents, we’ve talked about 25,” Kafoury says. “You don’t want it to be so high that people are driving across town, driving to Clackamas.” 

Some Salem Democrats tell WW that senators are mulling the idea of using the measure, House Bill 2870, to leverage an increase in the state cigarette tax.

“It’s one of the many moving pieces in play,” says Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward (D-Portland/Beaverton). “You know much horse-trading goes on late in session.”

But no matter what happens, Oregon will remain a state with very low cigarettes taxes.

“I find it hard to believe how strong the tobacco lobby still is,” Kafoury says. “It’s like dealing with the NRA.” 

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