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The 50 Cent Cure

Some states with the highest cigarette taxes also rank among the healthiest

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It's not often a proposed tax increase can be linked directly to saving lives, but House Bill 889, the Louisiana Healthier Families Act, would do just that. The bill, by House Speaker Pro Tem Karen Carter Peterson, raises the tax on a pack of cigarettes by 50 cents — which means fewer Louisiana kids are likely to start smoking if the bill becomes law. A report by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, citing such disparate sources as cigarette manufacturer Philip Morris and the U.S. Surgeon General, concludes that raising cigarette taxes reduces smoking, particularly among children.

  In addition to discouraging young people from smoking, Carter Peterson's bill would make people all across Louisiana healthier. Half the revenue derived from the tax would help provide the state match for up to $500 million in federal health care funds, says Carter Peterson. In these lean fiscal times, HB 889 would be a much-needed funding source for public health care in Louisiana. The alternative, under Gov. Bobby Jindal's proposed budget, is several hundred million dollars in cuts to state health care programs and hospitals. The other half of the tobacco tax revenues would fund tobacco-cessation programs and cancer research. Considering that the United Health Foundation recently ranked Louisianans last in overall health, anything that makes our citizens healthier is a good idea.

  Carter Peterson's bill is scheduled for a vote on the House floor the week of June 15. We urge House members to pass it.

  We understand Gov. Jindal's anti-tax philosophy, but his opposition to this bill is indefensible. Notwithstanding his slavish devotion to the conservative dictum that there is no such thing as an acceptable tax increase — and his transparent aspirations for higher office — supporting a reasonable tax on cigarettes to improve public health is sound fiscal policy as well as sound health-care policy. We submit that even the most conservative elements of the GOP would understand that a man who got his political start as the director of the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals (DHH) has good reason to support linking a cigarette tax to smoking cessation, cancer research and public health.

  Jindal should be looking for ways to improve the health of Louisiana citizens, particularly its children. The four leading causes of death in our state are heart disease, cancer, stroke and lower respiratory diseases — all of which are linked to tobacco use. According to the Centers for Disease Control, tobacco use is America's leading killer and the single most frequent cause of disease, disability and death. Every year, an estimated 443,000 Americans die prematurely from smoking or an exposure to secondhand smoke. The Louisiana Campaign for Tobacco-Free Living reports that each year tobacco use causes $1.47 billion in health care bills and kills 6,400 Louisiana residents. Last week, Carter Peterson beat back repeated procedural attempts to derail her bill. In doing so, she told her fellow House members that every Louisiana household — smokers and non-smokers alike — pays $620 extra each year in additional health care costs because of cigarette smoke. It's time for Louisiana smokers to do more to offset those financial and human costs.

  Other states recently have increased the burden on smokers. Not surprisingly, some states with the highest cigarette taxes also rank among the healthiest. Rhode Island levies a $3.46 excise tax on every pack of cigarettes sold there, and it ranks 11th in overall health. Conversely, only four states have a lower cigarette tax than Louisiana's 36-cent levy. Even North Carolina, which is the largest tobacco producer in the country, recognizes the need to protect the public health. Although it has a lower cigarette tax, that state recently banned smoking in bars and restaurants.

  Initially, Carter Peterson proposed a $1 bump in the cigarette tax — an increase Gambit supported. HB 889's increase of 50 cents a pack is a reasonable compromise in light of the undeniable costs of smoking. Ultimately, the real beneficiaries will be children, particularly those who are deterred from smoking because of that extra 50 cents. Tobacco is a physically, psychologically and terminally addictive substance, and our state leaders should do everything reasonable within their power to prevent harming the next generation. Gov. Jindal should help lead that effort, not block it.

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