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Should Georgia fire up its cigarette tax?
Health advocates claim raising levy would help anti-smoking efforts
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Scott Mathews of the American Cancer Society explains how a cigarette tax increase could benefit Georgians.

A proposal to increase Georgia's cigarette tax has received strong support from health advocates, but it might not be greeted as enthusiastically by state lawmakers.

On Tuesday, Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Savannah, introduced House Bill 1197, which would boost the state excise tax on cigarettes from 37 cents per pack to $1.37.

If passed, it would be the second increase in five years. In 2003, Georgia's cigarette tax was raised from 12 cents to 37 cents.

Georgia still has one of the lowest cigarette taxes in the nation, ranking 43rd. South Carolina charges the smallest amount, just 7 cents per pack. New Jersey is highest, at $2.58. The national average is $1.11.

June Deen, spokeswoman for the American Lung Association in Georgia, said advocates had hoped for a much larger increase back in 2003. "We got just about half of what we asked for," she said.

Deen said a bigger increase will have greater impact on public health. "We know that raising the price of cigarettes does deter smoking, especially among kids and pregnant women," she said.

Danny McGoldrick, vice president of research at the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, called the proposal a "win-win-win."

"By our estimate, it will prevent 100,000 Georgia kids from starting smoking, and it will also encourage adults to quit," he said. "This tax would raise about $350 million a year in revenue. And the state would also save money, because there would be fewer tobacco-related illnesses."

The revenue raised by the tax cannot be earmarked to a specific program. But Stephens, a pharmacist, has suggested it could be used to help working class Georgians purchase health insurance.

Scott Mathews, director of government relations for the Georgia chapter of the American Cancer Society, said the state has many health-related needs that the potential tax revenue could address. The funds could go toward trauma centers, or to offsetting Medicaid costs," he said.

At the news conference where Stephens announced his introduction of HB 1197, anti-tobacco groups presented the results of a recent survey showing that about 75 percent of Georgians would favor a cigarette tax increase.

"I think from a constituent standpoint there is broad and deep support," Mathews said. "(Though) it's always a dicey proposition, going into an election year, to talk about raising taxes."

McGoldrick said people seem less resistant to the idea of taxes on cigarettes, because it's a nonessential product and the majority of the population does not smoke. "Polls show the public doesn't view this as they do other types of taxes," he said.

To some politicians, however, a tax is a tax. Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, for example, would reject a cigarette tax on principle. "The lieutenant governor is not in favor of new taxes and therefore does not support the cigarette tax proposal," Cagle spokeswoman Jaillene Hunter said.

But some legislators say they'll keep an open mind. State Sen. Lee Hawkins, R-Gainesville, a dentist, sees some possible merit to the idea. "I'm a health care provider, and we're talking about a product that impacts health," he said.

Hawkins said he might support the legislation if it meets three criteria: "If it's only on cigarettes, if it's to prevent kids from smoking, and if the money would go toward something like trauma hospitals."

Hawkins said he would oppose a bill that includes other forms of tobacco, such as cigars. "I don't want to put people out of business at places like cigar shops, where that's their only product," he said. "At least convenience stores sell other things besides cigarettes."

HB 1197 would not change the taxes on cigars or smokeless tobacco.

The Times spoke to several local convenience store clerks, all of whom declined to be identified. But they said they believe if the tax goes up, most customers will switch from brand name to generic cigarettes and continue smoking.

Brand name cigarettes currently cost almost $4 a pack; some generics only cost about half as much. The $1.37 excise tax would be the same for every pack of cigarettes regardless of its sticker price.

Darrell Wiley, owner of J&J Foods in Gainesville, suspects the Georgia General Assembly will try to whittle down the proposed $1 tax increase.

"I'd be surprised if they got the full amount passed," he said. "If the increase is only 25 cents, I think it probably won't have an impact on people's buying habits. If it's 50 cents, I think it probably will."

But smokers are not easily deterred by high prices. Wiley noted that even though the stumbling economy is forcing people to spend more on food, gas and other necessities, tobacco sales at his grocery stores have not changed significantly.

Yet Georgia should be doing more to curb smoking, according to the American Lung Association. Even though the group praises the state for banning smoking in most indoor places, its 2007 "Tobacco Control Report Card" gives Georgia an "F" for its low cigarette tax and its lack of funding for tobacco prevention.

Georgia spends about $3 million a year on tobacco control programs. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the state should be spending about $42 million.

The money is available. Georgia gets about $150 million each year from the 1998 master settlement with tobacco manufacturers, but nearly all of the funds get spent on unrelated programs such as economic development.

District 2 Public Health in Gainesville no longer has a staff member assigned to tobacco prevention. And Georgia's Quit Line, a free service to help people stop smoking, gets far fewer calls these days because there's no money to advertise the program.

Though raising the cigarette tax would not necessarily correct those problems, Deen said the tax increase would demonstrate that Georgia is committed to smoking prevention.

"We have to make this a real priority with our elected officials," she said. "We've got to convince our legislators to have the political will to do what's right, to do what their constituents have clearly shown that they want."

Mathews said Wednesday has been designated as "lobby day" for the tax increase. "About 350 volunteers from across the state, including cancer survivors, will meet with legislators," he said. "We think it will start to build momentum."

But if the General Assembly passes the law, will Gov. Sonny Perdue sign it? Perdue spokesman Bert Brantley said the previous cigarette tax increase in 2003 was not motivated by a desire to stop kids from smoking.

"It was an attempt to fill a budget deficit that was left by (Perdue's) predecessor (Gov. Roy Barnes)," Brantley said. "That's not the case this year. And the governor's proposed supplemental budget already addresses trauma care and the affordability of health care. We don't need additional funds to cover those proposals."

Still, Brantley said Perdue hasn't yet voiced any opposition to Stephens' bill. "He'll let the legislative process play out," he said. "And if it comes to his desk, he'll give it full consideration."