Sunday, January 30, 2011
Cigarette tax hike deserves discussion
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- Redistricting process must be taken from pols
- A shutdown remains a very real possibility
- U.S. Navy Vets case argues for campaign limits
From the RoundTable blog
It was no surprise that proposals to increase Virginia's cigarette tax went down with barely a whimper. But as the state struggles to fund increasing Medicaid requirements that will phase in under federal health care reform, more serious consideration should be given to increasing the cigarette tax in the years ahead.
Why? Because smoking is a serious contributor to Medicaid's cost. Cigarette smoking adds hundreds of millions of dollars to Virginia's Medicaid bill annually, according to estimates by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
In the state overall, smoking costs about $4 billion a year in medical expenses and lost productivity, according to the American Lung Association. More than 9,000 Virginians lose their lives every year to tobacco-related illnesses, making it the state's No. 1 killer, according to the Virginia Department of Health.
Despite all the costs associated with tobacco use in Virginia that are borne by state government, the commonwealth has the second-lowest cigarette tax in the nation at 30 cents a pack.
Two bills that would have raised that tax considerably were killed without comment in the House Finance Committee last week, along with a third bill that would have allowed all Virginia counties to impose local cigarette taxes. Currently, only two counties -- Arlington and Fairfax -- and cities and towns have that authority.
Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington County, tried to raise the tax to $1.45 a pack, the national average. Del. Ken Plum, D-Fairfax County, pushed for a more modest 50-cent increase. Neither was given even the courtesy of a hearing.
Both proposals had a lot going against them, of course, including Virginia's long history with the tobacco industry and reflexive Republican opposition to tax increases.
But it's really a shame that the proposals weren't at least given a hearing. After all, this is a product that is the No. 1 killer of Virginians and costs the state $400 million a year in medical expenses (even more if you count the medical expenses of state employees), yet it is taxed at a fraction of the national average.
In the meantime, the state is struggling to fund even its bare-bones Medicaid system -- which ranks 48th out of the 50 states in per capita expenditures. "The Virginia Medicaid budget is facing a fiscal crisis," Hope said. "We have to do something about it."
These taxes could do more than provide revenue to offset the health care costs associated with cigarettes. High taxes obviously increase the price of cigarettes, and that's been proven to lower the number of teens who start smoking, which lowers the numbers who become addicted to nicotine and become lifelong smokers.
So high cigarette taxes provide revenue now for treating illnesses caused by cigarettes, and they lower medical costs in the future by cutting down the number of smokers.
That's not even worth talking about?
One opponent of the tax increase, Del. Bobby Orrock, R-Caroline County, said if the tax were increased too much, Virginians might quit smoking altogether. "You don't want to restrict the chicken so much that she doesn't lay any more eggs," he said.
Virginia is hardly in danger of that, unfortunately. In fact, if everyone did quit smoking, the state budget would be better for it, even with the loss of revenue from cigarette sales.
In an ideal world, Virginia would not only raise the cigarette tax to the national average, it would devote a much larger chunk of the money it's receiving from the 1998 multistate settlement with the tobacco industry to smoking prevention efforts.
Currently, the state spends only about $10 million a year on efforts to help smokers quit and encourage teens never to pick up the habit.
If the state followed guidelines by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, it would be spending about 10 times that amount.
If done correctly, these programs are extraordinarily successful at lowering the number of teens who start smoking. Add in a higher cigarette tax, and the effect is multiplied.
Cigarettes are expensive killers. Cigarette taxes help pay for the damage and reduce the number of smokers. The House of Delegates didn't want to discuss that this year.
Lawmakers must start thinking about it in the future.
Radmacher is the editorial page editor of The Roanoke Times.