Kentucky raised its tax on cigarettes by 27 cents in 2005 and by 30 cents in 2009 to reach the current 60 cents a pack, one of the nation’s lowest.
Given the state’s desperate need for new revenue, the legislature is likely to consider upping the excise tax on tobacco products in 2018.
Unless the per-pack increase is $1 or more, it would just be a tax on poor people, doing nothing to protect Kentuckians’ health.
A significant increase in the price of cigarettes, on the other hand, is the most effective way to combat the addiction that has cursed Kentucky with the nation’s highest rates of cancer and cancer deaths and overall ill health. In only West Virginia does such a high percentage of adults smoke.
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They weren’t adults when they started, though. Four in five adult smokers start before they are 18, just one in 100 start after age 26. Young people are especially sensitive to price increases, which is a big reason tobacco taxes are a proven public-health strategy.
Preventing youth smoking is key to improving our state’s health and why the tax also should be increased on electronic cigarettes, that trendy entree to disease and disability.
Experience shows that cigarette makers and retailers have their own strategies — through discounts and promotions — for blunting the effects on consumption of smaller tax increases.
The tobacco industry still holds sway in Frankfort. Altria Client Services, parent company of cigarette maker Philip Morris USA, has already spent $200,000 lobbying Kentucky’s legislature this year. Winning a meaningful cigarette tax increase would be a heavy lift.
Thankfully, a growing coalition of Kentuckians is lining up to push for higher tobacco taxes, including a $1 increase in the cigarette tax. The Coalition for a Smoke-Free Tomorrow includes Toyota and UPS, health departments, Baptist Health and the Markey Cancer Center, universities, colleges, the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, health insurers and a bunch of advocacy groups. Spearheaded by the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky and chaired by the foundation’s president/CEO, Ben Chandler, the coalition launched last month and signed up more than 100 partners and members in its first two weeks.
In parts of Kentucky the cancer rate is rising, as smoking has become most prevalent among the poor and uneducated.
A $1 increase in the cigarette tax would initially generate $266 million a year for the state. (Kentucky would still be under the national average state cigarette tax of $1.71.) More important, it would spare many young people from becoming smokers, save billions in medical costs and lost productivity and save lives.