BISMARCK - North Dakota House representatives Monday voted overwhelmingly against a bill proposing to ban tobacco sales in the state.
The measure, which would make selling or using tobacco products except for using it for relgious purposes misdemeanors, failed by an 88-4 vote.
The bill would have made it a crime to sell or use tobacco in North Dakota, with sellers facing a maximum penalty of a year in jail and a $2,000 fine. The bill labeled smoking, chewing or using smokeless tobacco as a less severe crime, punishable by 30 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.
The bill's sole sponsor, Grand Forks Republican Rep. Mike Grosz, said he was disappointed by Monday's vote.
But "it did get a fair day in the sun and generated a lot of discussion," said Grosz, a member of the House Finance and Taxation Committee, which heard the bill last week.
Before the bill went to a vote on the floor, Grosz told his fellow representatives that tobacco costs the state close to 1,000 lives every year and $351 million in medical and productivity costs. Tobacco taxes are expected to bring $39.7 million to North Dakota's treasury during the state's current two-year budget period, which ends in June.
"It seems the only gainers from allowing the use of this product are the big tobacco companies and groups, such as the government and organizations, which tax the product or sue the companies," he said.
Grosz said he would vote against all other measures on tobacco, including a tax increase, because trying to reduce tobacco use through those measures is like "putting a bandage on a severed leg."
Gov. John Hoeven's proposed two-year budget for North Dakota state government includes an increase in tobacco taxes, which would increase the levy on a pack of cigarettes from 44 cents to 79 cents.
Rep. Wes Belter, R-Leonard, chairman of the Finance and Taxation Committee, said he decided to vote no on the floor Monday because he believe prohibition would drive smoking underground.
His committee heard the bill last week and recommended a "do pass" on the bill by a 9-4 vote. Six of the nine committee members who voted yes on the bill changed their vote on the floor Monday.
Belter told the House that committee members were frustrated last week with the testimony from anti-tobacco groups that testified against the tobacco ban, including the North Dakota Medical Association, American Heart Association, American Cancer Society, American Lung Association, North Dakota Public Health Association and North Dakota Nurses Association.
There's no evidence banning tobacco would prevent and reduce tobacco use because no such approach has been implemented, the groups argued. The ban also could take away certain funding forthese groups for tobacco control programs.
The North Dakota Grocer's Association supported the bill. Tom Woodmansee, the association's president, told lawmakers during the committee hearing that retailers have to spend too much time and money training employees on proper procedures for proof-of-age in selling tobacco products. He said retailers are subject to undercover stings by local law enforcement, fines and license suspension.
Belter did point out that legislators are "hooked on tobacco," even though not all smoke.
"It is time for us to think about just how hooked we are on tobacco, whether we smoke or not," he said.