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Doctors promote higher tax to combat smoking-related deaths

January 17, 2018

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Smoking-related diseases inflict a much higher death toll in Kentucky than opioid-related overdoses, advocates of a higher cigarette tax told a legislative panel on Wednesday.

Doctors pointed to smoking-related health ravages in a state that has led the nation in burley tobacco production as they promoted efforts to boost the cigarette tax by at least $1 per pack. The higher tobacco tax would reduce smoking rates among adults and youths in a state where about one-fourth of adults puff on cigarettes, they said.

“This has to stop, this cycle of death that happens as a result of cigarette smoking,” said Dr. Jason Chesney, director of the James Graham Brown Cancer Center in Louisville.

The Senate Health and Welfare Committee heard from the advocates without having a related bill to evaluate. Advocates hope to have one considered by the legislature this year, or have the issue included if lawmakers take up a comprehensive overhaul of the state’s tax code.

Kentucky’s current 60-cent-per-pack cigarette tax ranks as one of the nation’s lowest. The national average is $1.72 a pack, the committee was told.

The advocates offered grim health and financial statistics to back a higher tax.

Kentucky has the nation’s highest death rates linked to smoking, they said. More than one-third of cancer diagnoses are smoking related, said Chesney, who called it a “health crisis.”

Smoking kills more people in Kentucky than alcohol, AIDS, car crashes, illegal drugs, murders and suicides combined, he said. The state’s death toll from smoking-related diseases is six times higher than deaths caused by the scourge of opioid-related overdoses, he said.

High smoking rates contribute to Kentucky having the nation’s unhealthiest workforce, said Kentucky Chamber of Commerce executive Ashli Watts. That leads to billions of dollars in lost productivity, she said. The politically influential chamber supports raising the cigarette tax to improve the state’s health, she said.

Advocates also pointed to the financial drain to treat smoking-related illnesses.

About $2 billion in annual health care costs in Kentucky are directly attributed to smoking, including about $600 million in Medicaid funds, they said.

“I resent deeply that I’ve got to spend $600 million of our tax dollars to treat smoking-related illnesses for the Medicaid population when we can’t find funding for schools,” said Republican Sen. Stephen Meredith of Leitchfield.

Meredith has introduced a bill that would raise the cigarette tax by $1 per pack. He proposes that most of the revenue go into the state’s Medicaid program, but 10 percent would support smoking cessation programs in counties with smoke-free measures. His bill was sent to the Senate Appropriations and Revenue Committee. Meredith said he is looking for someone to sponsor a companion bill in the House, where such a measure would have to start.

Sen. Max Wise, R-Campbellsville, said that raising the cigarette tax could put lawmakers on a “slippery slope.” Wise, a non-smoker, said it could lead to higher taxes or restrictions on other products such as sugary drinks and snacks that are blamed for contributing to health problems.

“If we do a cigarette tax, I would like to know, what’s next?” he said.

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