Archive for Saturday, April 20, 2002

Compelling case

April 20, 2002


Even in the proverbial smoke-filled room, the case for increased cigarette taxes should be clear.

Some Kansas legislators almost certainly will try, but it's hard to argue with the case proponents make for a substantial increase in the state excise tax on cigarettes.

Supporting the passage of a measure that increases the cigarette tax by at least 65 cents per pack is the primary mission of the Kansas Health Care Access Coalition, which was founded early this year. The membership of the coalition includes most statewide health organizations as well as dozens of hospitals, county health departments and community mental health centers.

The clout of the coalition's membership is surpassed only by the strength of its case in favor of the tobacco tax. The studies and statistics they have amassed to support their stand are difficult to dismiss.

First is the contention that a tax increase will both reduce smoking rates and increase revenue for the state. Various national studies have concluded that a 10 percent increase in the cost of a pack of cigarettes will produce a 4 percent reduction in adult smoking and a 7 percent reduction in teen smoking. In documents released during the multistate lawsuit against tobacco companies, even the cigarette-makers conceded that "price, not tar level, is the main driving force for quitting." (Philip Morris)

And, although opponents argue that the cigarette tax is regressive, a 2000 report from the U.S. Surgeon General indicates that young people, minorities and low-income smokers are two to three times more likely than other smokers to respond to price increases by quitting or smoking less.

Data from 17 states that have increased their cigarette taxes since 1994 show that in every case, consumption in the state has declined and net revenue from the tax has increased. When New York state raised its tax to $1.11 per pack in 2000, it saw a 24 percent reduction in consumption and a 52 percent increase in revenue. The state recently increased its tax to $1.50 a pack.

Many other states, including almost all of the states surrounding Kansas, also are considering sizable increases, which responds to the argument made by convenience store owners that a higher tax will drive their business across state lines. Critics who say the state shouldn't "balance the budget on the backs of smokers" also should consider that a study conducted by the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Assn., Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids and others that showed Kansas taxpayers contributed $68.9 million last year to Medicaid-funded care for patients with ailments related to smoking.

And perhaps the strongest argument for elected officials is that an increased excise tax on cigarettes is something Kansans support. In a statewide survey of registered voters conducted in December, 72 percent of respondents said they strongly or somewhat support a 75-cent increase in the state tobacco tax with the revenue being dedicated to no-smoking programs and to address the state's budget shortfall. Gov. Bill Graves and a Kansas Senate committee have supported a 65-cent increase; a 76-cent increase being considered by a Kansas House committee would raise the state tax to an even $1 per pack.

In a real sense, the tax on cigarettes is a user fee. The people who choose to use cigarettes also use additional health services that are paid for by government programs or help drive up health insurance rates. Smokers may feel discriminated against, but smoking is a choice that is costly to taxpayers and, therefore, arguably should be more costly to smokers. And it is a choice; smokers can avoid the tax by kicking the habit.

The evidence seems clear. The state's plan to deal with its current budget crisis should include an increase of at least 65 cents on each pack of cigarettes sold in the state.

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