Raise tobacco tax high enough for real impact

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In your Sept. 18 editorial, “Like other states, Kentucky should look to hospitals, tobacco tax to fund Medicaid expansion,” you suggest raising Kentucky’s tobacco tax. Our statewide volunteer advocates and I couldn’t agree more.

However, it’s important to follow evidence-based best practices in deciding the amount of the tax increase.

There is ample evidence from around the country that has proven regular and significant increases in tobacco taxes, like the $1.50 increase per cigarette pack supported by the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network and other public health groups, are necessary to ensure the state will benefit fully from a public-health standpoint.

Tobacco tax increases of less than $1 per pack have far less impact on teen- and adult-smoking rates because the tobacco industry can easily offset the smaller cost increases through temporary price cuts, coupons and other promotional discounting.

Kentucky last raised its tobacco tax in 2009 and only increased it to 60 cents. This is more than a dollar below the current national average of $1.65 per pack and Kentucky’s problematic smoking rates and health statistics reflect it.

More than 38,000 Kentucky high school students and a staggering 894,300 adults smoke. Every single year, 4,500 of our kids under the age of 18 become new, daily smokers.

An estimated 25,720 people in Kentucky will be diagnosed with cancer this year alone and, tragically, 10,350 people are expected to die from the disease, including 3,570 from lung cancer, which in many cases can be directly connected to tobacco use.

While researchers are busy searching for better, more effective ways of treating cancer and other diseases caused by tobacco use, our lawmakers should be busy passing policies to prevent the diseases altogether. By supporting an increase of $1.50 in the price of tobacco, Kentucky legislators can take a big step in that direction.

Increasing taxes on cigarettes, cigars, smokeless tobacco and all other tobacco products by $1.50 would save lives, reduce health care costs, help people quit smoking and deter youth from ever starting. What’s more, evidence suggests that an increase in the tobacco tax of this size has also proven to be a stable source of additional revenue for the state to invest in becoming healthier.

That’s why the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network in Kentucky supports increasing our tobacco excise tax by $1.50 per pack. A $1.50 tax increase would change the course of life for 52,600 kids by keeping them from ever starting to smoke in the first place. And, with an estimated 32,100 premature deaths that would be prevented and nearly 22 percent of youth and 57,600 adults who would quit smoking, raising our tobacco tax would save lives.

Your editorial also refers to a tobacco tax as “regressive.” In fact, it is the harms from smoking that are regressive. Lower-income communities already suffer more from smoking-caused disease, disability, death, and costs. By prompting lower-income smokers to quit and cut back, raising tobacco tax rates reduce those regressive effects, directly helping people who smoke and also reducing smoking-caused costs and harms to their families.

The American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network and The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids estimate that a $1.50 tax increase would generate an additional $301 million dollars in new revenue in the very first year alone while fewer tobacco users would result in lower health-care costs and less worker productivity losses.

In our view, raising our tobacco tax in this way is win-win-win; a win for health, a win for our state budget, and a win for legislators because voters support tobacco tax increases.

I strongly encourage the people of Kentucky to demand our state leaders do the right thing; support good health and increase revenue by raising the state’s tobacco tax by $1.50 or more per pack so we can all prosper.

Pam Pilgrim is the Kentucky lead volunteer of American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network.