By Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer
LUDLOW - Northern Kentucky's top education leaders have endorsed an increase in the state's cigarette tax that lawmakers are pondering in Frankfort.
The Northern Kentucky Superintendents Association unanimously voted Wednesday to endorse the tax. Educators say it would provide more revenue and help reduce smoking, particularly among teens.
"Increasing the excise tax on cigarettes is really an investment in our kids," said Ludlow Independent Schools Superintendent Elizabeth Grause, president of the superintendents association. "If the price of cigarettes is increased, the number of kids smoking will decrease."
According to the Northern Kentucky Independent District Health Department, a 75-cent increase in the state's 3-cents-a-pack cigarette tax - the second lowest tax in the nation - would lower the youth smoking rate by 15 percent and cut the number of adult smokers by 5 percent.
Kentucky, where tobacco is the largest cash crop at $1 billion annually, has the highest adult smoking rate in the nation at 30.5 percent and the highest smoking rate among middle-school students. More than twice the national average of middle-school students smoke in Kentucky, with 21.5 percent smoking in the commonwealth compared to 9.2 percent nationwide, according to the health department.
"This is essentially a health care initiative to reduce youth smoking," said Fort Mitchell resident Milly Diehl, the Northern Kentucky coordinator of Kentucky Action, an organization that works to curtail smoking in concert with, among others, the American Cancer Society and the American Lung Association.
Diehl appeared before the superintendents this week to seek their support for an increase in a tax that has not been raised in more than 30 years and is considerably below the national average of 61 cents a pack.
"This is an issue that affects the health of young people and many Kentuckians," Diehl said. "But certainly with the budget shortfall, Kentucky is really missing the boat by not tapping into this revenue stream."
Kentucky is facing a $400 million budget shortfall. And while Gov. Paul Patton said in an emotional budget address to lawmakers Tuesday night he wants to spare education from any severe cuts, his budget is predicated on a cigarette tax of 37 cents a pack.
That increase, while below the 75-cent increase anti-smoking advocates have called for, would raise an estimated $185 million a year in new state revenue.
State Rep. Jon Draud, R-Crestview Hills, has co-sponsored legislation that would increase the tax by 44 cents a pack, which would raise an estimated $220 million a year.
Schools and other state agencies and programs are in desperate need after more than $700 million was sliced from the budget last year, said Fred Bassett, superintendent of the Beechwood Independent Schools in Fort Mitchell.
"Our resolution sends the right message to students that they should not be smoking," Bassett said Friday. "We don't want them to start smoking; and raising taxes, and thus the price of cigarettes and other tobacco products, makes it more difficult to afford to smoke.
"But this would also generate more money," he said. "We know very few (lawmakers) are willing to come out on record as supporting tax increases. But the financial picture is so bad that something is going to have to happen."
However, several lawmakers - including Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville - said Patton's call for higher taxes is not resonating in the General Assembly.
Williams, leader of the GOP-controlled Senate, said Patton "is out of tune with what the people of Kentucky want."
Many Republicans say they won't back tax increases because the budget is bloated with high administrative costs and too many employees.
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