Thursday, March 8, 2018

Health advocates push for $1 hike in cigarette tax, say it would lower the high smoking rates among the poor and other groups

Health advocates gathered at the state Capitol March 8 to urge the General Assembly to raise the cigarette tax by at least $1 per pack to help reduce smoking among low-income Kentuckians and other vulnerable populations, which they say the cigarette industry targets.

Smoking rates tend to be higher for those living at or near the poverty level (as shown by a much higher rate among Medicaid beneficiaries), racial minorities, those who are less educated, those with a mental illness or a substance-use disorder, and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people than for the population as a whole, the Coalition for a Smoke-Free Tomorrow said in a news release.

"Members of these communities are heavily targeted by tobacco industry advertising and coupons, so they tend to use tobacco at much higher rates than Kentuckians overall," Emily Beauregard, executive director of Kentucky Voices for Health, said in the release.

Beauregard added that Big Tobacco "zeroes in on these groups" because they are often less informed about the dangers of tobacco use, have less access to cessation treatments, and have fewer social supports to help them quit.

The coalition, which sponsored the rally, noted that the smoking rate for the 800,000 Kentuckians on Medicaid is 43.7 percent, compared to the state's overall adult smoking rate of 25.5 percent. One in three Kentucky youth who identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual youth are smokers, twice the rate of their heterosexual counterparts. The national smoking rate is 15.1 percent, but it rises to 23.9 percent for people who identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual; 27.9 percent for those who identify as multiracial, and 26.3 percent for those who live below the federal poverty level.

"Smoking is the cause of so much illness and heartache in Kentucky, but it has far greater consequences for Kentuckians experiencing racism, stigma or poverty," Ben Chandler, chair of the coalition and president/CEO of the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, said in the release. "That's why more than 150 organizations have joined the coalition - to urge the legislature to use the most effective tool we have for reducing smoking and the devastation it causes in the commonwealth."

The state House included a 50 cent-per-pack increase in the cigarette tax in HB 366, a companion to its March 1 budget bill, but the coalition is urging the Senate to add an additional 50 cents. At 60 cents per pack, Kentucky has one of the lowest cigarette taxes in the nation. The national average is $1.72. Nearly 70 percent of Kentucky adults support raising the cigarette tax by $1, according to the Kentucky Health Issues Poll.

"Research shows that a significant increase in cigarette taxes is the single most effective measure to reduce smoking, but also has found that such increases only reduce smoking rates and generate other health benefits "if they lead to a noticeable increase in the price of tobacco products," the release said.

Raising the tax by 50 cents per pack, let alone $1, faces an uphill battle. Senate President Robert Stivers told Bruce Schreiner of The Associated Press that it would "be very difficult" for the Senate to pass the House budget and tax measures as written, saying that a reliance on a higher cigarette tax to help meet the state's financial obligations is "not good taxing policy," noting that as smoking rates decline, so would the revenue generated from the tax -- after the initial tax increase of 83 percent.

The House is concerned that a rate higher than 50 cents would hurt sales of cogarettes by Kentucky stories to people from other states. The per-pack tax is 99.5 cents in Indiana, $1.60 in Ohio, 62 cents in Tennessee, $1.98 in Illinois, $1.20 in West Virginia, 30 cents in Virginia and 17 cents in Missouri; the last two are the nation's lowest.

Health advocates remain firm that $1 is what is needed to decrease smoking rates in the state, a known, preventable cause of many of the diseases and cancers that plague our state.

"Absent a full dollar increase, we won't see health benefits from the tax increase," Allison Adams, president of the Kentucky Health Department Association, said in the release. "Tobacco companies will undermine the impact of a 50-cent tax hike on the price of a pack of cigarettes by issuing 50-cent coupons. There'll be no 'price shock,' which is what it takes for the smoker to quit. In the end, minority groups and others who still smoke in Kentucky will pay more for their cigarettes when the price eases back up but they won't get the health benefits of quitting."

This rally was the seventh in a series sponsored by the coalition, all asking for a tax hike of $1 or more in the state's cigarette tax to improve health. The other rallies have focused on smoking and pregnancy, teens, behavioral health, heart health, cancer and the lungs. The coalition is headed by the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, which funds Kentucky Health News, but has no editorial control over it.

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