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Raising cigarette tax has healthy benefits

Jeff Benson
Photo credit: (Photo: Douglas Collier/The Times)

I don’t hate many things outright. But I can say with some measure of certainty I hate cigarettes. I hate everything about them. The smell. The taste. The chemicals. The butts. There’s nothing nice about them, but our young people continue to be suckered into the idea they are cool if they smoke, so they light up and another generation is hooked. Addicted for life, most likely.

That’s why I’m hopeful this will be the year that our lawmakers send the industry a strong message — we value health over commerce by raising the state’s cigarette excise tax.

House Bill 77 filed by state Rep. Harold Ritchie of Bogalusa proposes a constitutional amendment that would levy an additional tax of $1.18 per pack of 20 cigarettes, increasing the total tax per pack from 36 cents to $1.54 per pack. If it survives passage, the proposed amendment would come before voters in a statewide election Oct. 24.

According to the Louisiana Public Health Institute, the passage of the amendment would result in about $223.5 million in additional dollars added to the state revenue that could help ease the budget cutting blows sure to be directed at our state’s health care programs.

But the real gift of HB 77 is that it does so much more than just raise additional revenue. Evidence from past levies on cigarettes show higher taxes has other beneficial effects, namely a decrease in smoking as well as improved health for Louisiana residents. At least that’s what a newly published report from the Louisiana Campaign for Tobacco-Free Living, a program of the Louisiana Cancer Research Center and the Louisiana Public Health Institute, says.

For example, the 2002 cigarette tax increase of 36 cents resulted in a sharp decline in cigarette pack consumption, leading to fewer purchases and more people quitting smoking. In my book, that’s a good result for the state.

“For years, health advocates have been promoting the need to raise the tobacco tax in Louisiana, so the state can join the more than three dozen states who have taken this step over recent years,” said Michael Johnson, director for Tobacco-Free Living, in a recent news release.

“Currently, Louisiana’s tobacco tax rate sits at 36 cents per pack, ranking 49th among all state and Washington, D. C. Raising the tax by $1.18 would bring us to $1.54 per pack, currently the national average, and move us from a ranking of 49th lowest cigarette tax in the country to 23rd in the country.

Our state needs to change its image in regards to health, and this will help. According to the Louisiana Public Health Institute, more than 23 percent of adults and 12 percent of youth smoke cigarettes in Louisiana. It is the only consumer product that, when used as directed, will kill half of all users.

The fact is more than 7,200 adults die each year and 98,000 youth now under age 18 will ultimately die prematurely from smoking in our state. But increasing the tax just $1.18 will mean that we can have a major public health impact and save lives. I can’t think of a more noble use of legislation.

Here are some quick benefits the report says the state might receive from the tax adjustment on cigarettes:

  • 43,000 current adult smokers would quit;
     
  • 22,300 fewer premature deaths from smoking;
     
  • 17.9 percent decrease in youth smoking;
     
  • $1.48 billion saved in long-term health care costs
     
  • as mentioned earlier ... $223.5 million in annual revenue to offset smoking-related costs.

Obviously, this is a topic I’m passionate about because I know something of the personal costs involved in tobacco use, especially in regards to its relationship to cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, it is estimated that in 2015 about 171,000 cancer deaths will be caused by tobacco use alone. That’s a lot of people whose lives could be dramatically changed for the better if they were able to kick their tobacco habit.

Yes, I admit I had that habit at the time when I was first diagnosed with cancer in 1994. I had been smoking for about nine years. It probably contributed to causing my cancer, but not nearly as much as the chipped tooth that rubbed a lesion onto my tongue which I then ignored until it was too late.

Still, it was a life-changing moment when I finally quit.

Now, I worry for the next generation.

My daughter has picked up the habit. Fortunately, she’s only 19 and wasn’t brought up with cigarettes all over the place like they were in my formative years. Maybe it will be just a phase for her (I hope so), but I think HB 77 just might be the ticket to helping her decide to kick cigarettes before they mean more to her than the extra money per pack. I think it could do that for a lot of our young adults. They may not see it now in the midst of their addiction, but life without tobacco IS better.

Jeff Benson is the Conversations page editor and community connections columnist for The Times.

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