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Tobacco tax hike could raise half the $1 billion needed for transportation: Health care advocates

By David Pendered

Six health care organizations are calling for an increase in the tobacco tax to help pay for statewide transportation improvements.

Tobacco tax

Raising the tobacco tax to the national average would raise $500 million a year to help fund transportation and would bolster Georgia’s tobacco prevention program, health advocates say. Credit: dph.georgia.gov

Raising the tax to the national average would bring in about $500 million a year, one lobbyist said. That represents about half of the $1 billion Georgia lawmakers intend to raise through the current proposal to raise money to improve the state’s transportation infrastructure.

Calls to raise the tobacco tax have become an annual rite of passage at the Georgia Legislature. So far, lawmakers have not been willing to raise the tax.

Likewise, lawmakers have not been willing to fund transit or change the tax rate and collection method on motor fuel. However, both of those measures are at the heart of House Bill 170.

Andy Lord was first to raise the tobacco tax issue in the Feb. 12 meeting of the House Transportation Committee. Lord represents the Georgia chapter of the American College of Physicians; Georgia Society of Clinical Oncology; Healthy Mothers Healthy Babies; and Georgians for a Healthy Future.

Lord said Georgia’s tobacco tax ranks as the 48th lowest in the nation. The rate is 37 cents on each pack of 20 cigarettes.

State cigarette excise tax rates

Georgia’s cigarette tax is one of the lowest in the nation. Credit: tobaccofreekids.org

“Our proposal is to take Georgia’s tobacco tax up by $1.23 a pack,” he said. “That’s not a random number. It would bring Georgia to the national average.”

Lord said the motive of the organizations he represents is to address the health impact of smoking.

“We want to be transparent,” Lord said. “Our prime motivation is health care. We do believe that our rural hospitals and the health care system is more important than a cheap pack of cigarettes. We believe Medicaid reimbursement rates, which haven’t been raised in more than a decade, are more important than a cheap pack of cigarettes. We believe our school boards are worth more than a cheap pack of cigarettes.

“We also believe that transportation solutions are more important than a cheap pack of cigarettes,” Lord concluded. “We hope you agree with us and consider this as one of the revenue options going forward.”

Demographics of cigarette smoking

More than one in five Georgians smoke cigarettes. More young adults than older adults smoke. Credit: cdc.gov

Lobbyists with the Southeast region of the American Lung Association, and the American Cancer Society Cancer Network, supported Lord’s remarks.

June Deen, with the lung association, distributed some information kits to committee members and said there was no need for her to elaborate on Lord’s remarks.

Eric Bailey, of the cancer society, was almost as brief as Deen. He took a moment to note that the cost of health care for tobacco users is greater than the amount Georgia makes from the tobacco tax. He said that for Georgia to be consider as serious in efforts to reduce teen smoking and smoking overall, the tobacco tax should be increased.

Chicago has the highest tobacco tax in the nation, at $6.16 a pack once state and local taxes are included. New York City comes in second, at $5.85 a pack, according to tobaccofreekids.org.

The average state tobacco tax in tobacco-growing states, including Georgia, is 48.5 cents per pack. The average for all other states is $1.68 a pack. The overall state average is $1.54 per pack, according to tobaccofreekids.org.

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow. David was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in North Carolina and is married to a fifth-generation Atlantan.

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