Monday, November 19, 2001

Ky. group seeks big boost in cigarette tax

By Cindy Schroeder
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Kentucky's excise tax on cigarettes is the second-lowest in the United States and it hasn't been raised since 1970, but a grass-roots group now believes the time is right for a major increase.

        Kentucky Health Investment for Kids, a consortium of about 120 health, youth and faith-based organizations, wants to raise the state's 3 cent excise tax on a pack of cigarettes to 78 cents.

        Only Virginia's 2.5 cent cigarette excise tax is lower than Kentucky's. New York's is the highest at $1.11 per pack. Nationally, the average tax per pack is 42 cents. In the Tristate, there has been talk of raising Indiana's 15.5 cent tax per pack and Ohio's 24 cent tax per pack, supporters of Kentucky's proposed increase say.

        Advocates say studies in other states that have approved significant increases in the cigarette excise tax show that the price increase has deterred youths from starting smoking and encouraged more pregnant women to stop.

        In Kentucky, backers of the tax increase say it's long overdue because the commonwealth has the fourth-highest rate of high-school smokers in the nation, and Kentucky middle-school students smoke at more than twice the national average — 21.5 percent to 9.2 percent, according to recent national and Kentucky youth tobacco surveys.

        “We know that for every 10 percent increase in the price of a pack of cigarettes, there's a 7 percent decrease in youth smoking,” said Lynncarol Birgmann, executive director of Kentucky ACTION, a coalition of groups dedicated to comprehensive tobacco control. “Our main purpose for raising the tax is to deter teens from taking up smoking or from becoming addicted to cigarette smoking.”

        Stopping teens from smoking — the time when they're most likely to be hooked — means fewer adult smokers later, said Cindy Adams, the Kentucky advocacy director for the American Cancer Society. And that translates into lower health-care costs for all Kentuckians, she and Ms. Birgmann said.

        “We spend about a billion dollars every year in Kentucky on smoking-related diseases,” Ms. Birgmann said. “About $650 million of that is taxpayer dollars.”

        State Rep. Thomas McKee, a Cynthiana Democrat and tobacco farmer, and Rep. Royce Adams, a Dry Ridge Democrat who raised tobacco for many years and now leases his tobacco acre age in Grant County to a tenant farmer, could not be reached for comment.

        While there has been talk of raising the excise tax in the past, this is the first time there has been a formal proposal with grass-roots support, Ms. Birgmann said.

        “It's always been considered sort of a radical concept here in Kentucky, because of the tobacco culture here and the misinformation or the misperception that this is go ing to hurt tobacco farmers,” she said. “But our research shows that it would have a negligible effect on burley sales. If everybody in Kentucky stopped smoking tomorrow, it would not have an impact whatsoever because Kentucky burley is sold on an international market.”

        Another factor favoring an increase in the cigarette excise tax is Kentucky's $530 million budget deficit, Ms Birgmann said.

        “Kentucky ACTION believes that if ever the timing were right, this is a potential source of revenue that has long been overlooked,” Ms. Birgmann said.

        As only 30 percent of Kentuckians smoke, Ms. Birgmann said that advocates of the tax increase “like to think of it more as a user fee.”

        But Ken L. Jones, an Alexandria truck driver who's been smoking for 28 of his 40 years, says that logic stinks.

        “Even if you tax a small group, to me that's not ethical,” he said. “That would be like saying, "John Doe lives in a $200,000 house. The guy across the street lives in a mobile home, so let's tax him.' I don't see why people who smoke have to pay a penalty. We're going to pay anyway because it affects our health.”

        Ms. Adams said the intent of the proposed tax increase is not to penalize the typical adult smoker, but to discourage youths from starting.

        If the tax should pass, Mr. Jones said he would like to see advocates do more to help smokers quit.

        “They should have special clinics like for drug addicts,” he said. Mr. Jones said that he's repeatedly tried to quit.

        “I've used the patch. I've chewed the gum. For me, it's going to take a lot more than that to quit.”

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