Politics & Government

Did raising Kentucky’s cigarette tax affect smoking? This poll has the answer.

A 2018 tax increase on cigarettes in Kentucky made a dent in smoking, according to a poll released Thursday.

Half the adult smokers contacted for the poll said the higher price for a pack had an impact on their habit; 39 percent said they had cut back on the number of cigarettes they consumed.

Others considered quitting or tried to quit, according to the poll released by the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky.

“The cigarette tax increase is changing thinking and behavior about smoking in Kentucky,” Ben Chandler, president and chief executive officer of the foundation, said in a news release.

The Coalition for a Smoke-Free Tomorrow, a group of 180 businesses, health-care companies and other organizations, lobbied for state lawmakers to up the tax on cigarettes by $1 a pack.

However, legislators approved an increase of 50 cents, bringing the total tax to $1.10 a pack, according to the foundation. The new tax went into effect on July 1.

A research institute conducted the Kentucky Health Issues Poll for the foundation and a Cincinnati-area non-profit called Interact for Health, calling a random total sample of 1,569 people in August, September and October.

The estimates had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percentage points.

The 50-cent tax increase has had health benefits, but the impact would have been greater at $1, Chandler said.

“We knew we wouldn’t get all the health benefits we sought when the legislature opted for 50 cents instead of a dollar and decided to exempt e-cigarettes completely, but we hoped it would have some positive effect . . . this poll shows it did,” Chandler said.

The poll showed that the smoking rate in Kentucky remained among the highest in the country, at 23 percent of adults. The rate among poorer state residents was 35 percent, the poll found.

The estimate on the adult smoking rate in Kentucky by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is even higher at 24.6 percent.

The smoking rate among adults nationwide was 15.5 percent in 2016, according to the CDC.

The CDC says cigarette smoking is the top cause of preventable disease and death in the country, accounting for more than 480,000 deaths annually.

Cutting back on cigarettes, as the poll indicates some Kentucky residents did, does not eliminate health risks from smoking, said Ellen. J. Hahn, a professor at the University of Kentucky and director of BREATHE, which advocates for smoke-free ordinances and other policies to promote healthy environments.

“Even low levels of smoking increase heart disease risk,” Hahn said.

The poll found that 24 percent of Kentucky adults have tried electronic cigarettes, and that a third of those who have tried e-cigarettes use them regularly.

That amounts to 8 percent of the adult population in the state who reported using e-cigs some days or every day, compared to 3 percent nationally in 2017, according to the foundation.

E-cig use went down from 2017 to 2018 among people age 18 to 29, but went up among the 30-to-35 age group.

It went down overall among all adults.

The foundation has helped raise concerns about use of electronic cigarettes, often called vaping, by teens and young adults.

Studies have shown that using e-cigarettes leads to use of regular cigarettes, said Dr. Pat Withrow, a cardiologist with Baptist Health Paducah who works with the foundation.

“Unless we get it into the heads of kids that these are highly addictive tobacco products and flat-out unsafe for them to use, the explosion in teen e-cig use is going to translate into an equivalent upsurge in adult tobacco use in the very near future,” Withrow said in the foundation news release.

The U.S. Food & Drug Administration said that a survey showed e-cig use by high school students shot up by 78 percent from 2017 to 2018, translating to a “troubling” 3 million high school students using the devices in 2018.

E-cig use among middle-schoolers also went up 48 percent.

The agency said that while switching completely from regular cigarettes to e-cigs might benefit the health of adult smokers, “no tobacco product — including e-cigarettes — is safe for youth to use.”

Nicotine exposure during adolescence can harm brain development and affect learning, the ability to pay attention, impulse control and memory, said the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky.

The foundation favors imposing a tax on e-cigs similar to the one on traditional cigarettes. Right now, e-cigarettes are subject only to sales taxes, while there are sales and excise taxes on cigarettes.

Most Kentucky residents support taxing electronic cigarettes the same as regular ones, according to a separate poll the foundation released recently.

Overall, 73 percent of Kentuckians surveyed in the December poll favored adding an excise tax to e-cigarettes.

Support was highest among Republicans, at 77 percent, followed by Democrats, at 72 percent, and independent voters, at 62 percent.

“From a health perspective, it’s imperative that we raise the cost of these products now to prevent youth as well as adults who would never have even tried traditional cigarettes from getting hooked on tobacco due to the high amounts of nicotine in e-cigs,” Chandler said.