Time for state to help smokers

Smokers are doing more for Kentucky. Kentucky should be doing more for them.

The 2009 increase in the state cigarette tax is bringing in more than an additional $100 million a year to help pay for education and other services, even though cigarette sales have declined by about 130 million packs since the excise tax increase.

Kentucky usually has the nation's highest rates of smoking among all age groups. About one in four Kentuckians is a smoker.

That translates into annual health costs directly attributable to smoking of an estimated $1.5 billion; the toll that smoking takes on productivity is even worse than that.

Yet, Kentucky still spends a pittance on helping smokers quit and preventing kids from becoming addicted in the first place.

Kentucky put about $2.6 million into tobacco prevention and cessation in the fiscal year that just ended, according to an analysis by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

That's far less than the $57.2 million the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says we should spend to be effective.

Kentucky's Medicaid program last year did finally begin covering smoking-cessation therapies, and the state also made use of federal grants for tobacco control.

But Kentucky has nothing in the way of an anti-smoking media campaign that begins to compete with the estimated $400 million the tobacco industry pours into marketing its deadly product here.

The decline in cigarette sales in Kentucky will be good news if it produces lower rates of smoking.

It's hard to know, though, how much of the decline in sales is because Kentuckians are smoking less in response to the higher cost and how much is because we're exporting fewer cigarettes to other states.

Other factors, such as smoking bans, may also be a factor. This uncertainty would be a good area for further study.

Kentucky also raised its cigarette tax in 2005 by 30 cents. Before that it was just three cents a pack, and the state was selling 725 million packs, which in a state of 4 million people means a lot of cigarettes that were taxed in Kentucky ended up being re-sold in other states.

Sales in 2010 were down to 513 million packs.

With a state tax of 60 cents a pack, Kentucky still is well below the national average of $1.45. Our cigarette tax also is lower than four of seven border states. So there's room to keep raising the cigarette tax.

More important, though, is reducing smoking's damage.

The $100 million increase in revenue shows the legislature and Gov. Steve Beshear were smart to increase the cigarette tax in 2008.

Kentucky could pocket an even greater windfall by reducing the toll smoking takes on our people's health and the state's economy.