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Editorial: Hazardous smoke signals

“Tax ’em if you got ’em” must have been the thinking behind a decision by the state’s Department of Taxation and Finance to stop exempting “research tobacco” from state regulation.

The long tentacles of the state in this case are threatening to strangle the ability of researchers at New York’s top medical schools and research institutions — including Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center — to conduct scientific studies on tobacco products.

Something can, and should, be done to fix this. Both houses of the State Legislature approved bills last week to amend the state tax law and restore the carve-out for tobacco produced for medical research. We hope Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo will sign them into law.

As explained in a Buffalo News story, tobacco products used for studies are produced under uniform research standards, to remove variations among different brands. All “research tobacco” products used for studies in New York come from the Kentucky Tobacco Research and Development Center at the University of Kentucky. Those products had been exempt from taxation until last year, when the state tax office changed its policy.

The tax office last year stated the Kentucky facility would need to become a “certified manufacturer” of tobacco products, something that would jeopardize the facility’s standing in other states. The center stopped its shipments of research products to New York State last year.

According to Roswell Park, about 240,000 research cigarettes came into the state tax-free in the past three years. That would yield about $20,000 in tax revenue, a figure dwarfed by the value of the cigarettes to researchers who are looking for for new ways to combat cancer.

Roswell Park is a national leader in tobacco research, including studies to find out why some people smoke, what damage the habit can cause, and which forms of tobacco and nicotine delivery are most harmful.

“If we can’t access the products to do this research, we can’t fulfill one of the core parts of our mission, which is to guide the public and local and national policymakers on the relative harms, risks or benefits various products have for people who use them and for society as a whole,” Andrew Hyland, chairman of health behavior at Roswell, told The News.

The dangers of smoking are well-known, but bear repeating. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cigarette smoking is responsible for more than 480,000 deaths per year in the U.S. That is about one in five deaths annually, or 1,300 deaths every day. Worldwide, tobacco use causes more than 7 million deaths per year.

Associated Medical Schools of New York represents 16 medical schools, including the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at UB. The association, in a letter to state lawmakers, called the consequences of the new tax policy on tobacco research “catastrophic.”

A fix is within reach. The governor needs to sign the law reversing the tobacco tax policy.