Would you pay more than $6.50 for a pack of cigarettes? The American Cancer Society hopes you won’t.
Thursday, a number of local anti-smoking activists went down to the state Capitol to lobby on behalf of House Bill 39, which would increase Georgia’s excise tax on a pack of cigarettes from 37 cents to $1.37.
The tax was just 12 cents until 2003, when the Georgia General Assembly passed a 25-cent increase. But health advocates believe the initial tax hike didn’t go far enough. Studies show that the more cigarettes cost, the less likely people are to smoke.
“Anytime the price goes up, it’s going to deter usage, both in adults and kids,” said Judy Brownell of the Center Point counseling center, who works with local students in anti-tobacco programs.
Excise taxes on cigarettes vary widely across the United States, from a high of $2.75 per pack in New York to a low of 7 cents in South Carolina. The overall average nationwide is $1.19, but among tobacco-producing states, including Georgia, it’s about 33 cents.
If Georgia’s tax is increased to $1.37, it would be by far the highest among tobacco states. At one time, that would have been a politically unpopular move. But with Georgia trying to claw its way out of a deep budget hole, legislators may be more open to the idea.
“We think the climate is right for a bill this year because of the revenue it could generate for the state,” said Georgette Porter, spokeswoman for the American Cancer Society in Georgia.
Anderson Flen, chronic disease prevention coordinator for District 2 Public Health in Gainesville, said smokers are already beginning to question whether they can still afford their habit.
“With the recession, I’m seeing people quit smoking because they don’t have the discretionary income to buy cigarettes,” he said. “I think raising the taxes would encourage even more people to quit.”
Flen said most smokers want to be ex-smokers, but kicking the addiction requires strong motivation. “The financial impact can really be an incentive,” he said.
That’s especially true among young people, whose incomes are already limited.
“Even though they can’t legally buy cigarettes, the price does matter, because most teens give their money to an older person who buys the cigarettes for them,” said Flen.
“Teenagers are very conscious of money, a lot more than we realize. They have to make a choice between spending on cigarettes and the other things they want.”
If their smoking habit is robbing them of the money they would have spent on clothes, entertainment, gas for the car and their cell phone bill, many teens may decide it’s not worth it anymore.
Though the recession may put a damper on smoking, Flen said a higher tax still is needed because it would be permanent.
“When we do come out of this recession and incomes improve, that added tax could be a deterrent to people wanting to start smoking again,” he said.
If the Georgia tax hike is passed, it would come on the heels of an increase in cigarette excise taxes at the federal level. On Feb. 4, President Barack Obama signed a law that will increase the federal tax from 39 cents to $1.01.
That measure is designed to help pay for expanding state children’s health insurance programs, such as Georgia’s PeachCare. It goes into effect April 1.
If Georgia passes the $1 tax increase, the cost of a $4 pack of cigarettes, combined with federal, state and local taxes, would be approximately $6.66.
Revenue from the Georgia tax would go into the state’s general fund and would not be designated for health care or for smoking prevention programs.
Still, Flen thinks the state will see an indirect benefit. “If fewer people smoke (because of the higher tax), it cuts down on health care costs,” he said.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, smoking-related illnesses cost Georgia’s health care system more than $2.3 billion a year.