Health Care and Insurance and Transportation, Distribution & Logistics

NOTIONS Bruce Hetrick: A buck-a-pack increased tax for the health we lack

February 26, 2007

After our Valentine's Day wedding, my bride and I took a few days off for a brief New York City honeymoon. We walked nearly everywhere, used public transportation when we wanted to go farther and bought our food and drink in jam-packed, smoke-free restaurants and bars (the only kind there are in New York, thanks to a several-years-old, levelthe-playing-field, smoke-free workplace law).

I liked being able to dine anywhere and everywhere with clean indoor air. I liked the exercise from walking many miles. But I didn't like the obvious conclusion: that the combination of more fitness and less smoke makes New Yorkers healthier than Hoosiers.

It just doesn't seem right that The Big Apple should more appropriately call itself "The Heartland" (as in heart-healthy), while we Hoosiers bear the moniker "Heart [Attack] Land" or worse, "Tropic of Cancer."

But such is the early grave we've dug ourselves.

So last Tuesday, after I'd unpacked my bags, I walked from our downtown home to the Statehouse.

I'd read in the morning paper that the House Ways and Means Committee would vote on a proposed 54.5-cent increase in Indiana's cigarette tax-a proposal that had, just a few days earlier, passed the Public Health Committee with a rare unanimous vote.

Because this was such well-crafted legislation with such clear and widespread human health and economic benefit, I had high hopes it might sail through Ways and Means, too. And oh, how this would compensate for years of personal and professional frustration.

I helped advocate for a cigarette-tax increase for the first time 14 years ago, when I worked at Methodist Hospital. We hoped back then that increasing the tax would help discourage young people from smoking, help adults quit smoking, and help offset the health care cost attributed to smoking.

But alas, the lethal combination of Big Tobacco lobbyists and no-new-taxes phobia killed the bill and, consequently, tens of thousands more Hoosiers. (Little did I know that one of those would be my wife, a nonsmoker who died of a secondhand-smokeinduced cancer in 2005.)

I got my hopes up again last year when Gov. Mitch Daniels floated the idea of a cigarette-tax increase as a way to discourage young people from smoking, help adults quit smoking and make our state a healthier place to live, work and create jobs.

But alas, the lethal combination of Big Tobacco lobbyists and no-new-taxes phobia killed that initiative, too. The stated excuse: The governor hadn't adequately explained how increased cigarette tax revenue would be used.

This year, I got my hopes up again when State Health Commissioner Dr. Judith Monroe convened panels to ask how proceeds from a potential cigarette-tax increase might be used (I was asked to weigh in on one of them).

I was even more thrilled when Gov. Daniels presented the resulting proposal: Use the proceeds to help smokers quit smoking, discourage young people from starting, fund health care for the uninsured, and immunize all our state's children against diseases.

And I was thrilled most of all when enacting legislation was introduced in the House, not by a member of the governor's Republican Party, but by a Democrat. At last, I thought, we could have bipartisan support for a common-sensical way to enhance our state's physical and fiscal fitness. And I wanted to see it with my own eyes.

But alas, a petty political pissing match ensued.

While I was honeymooning, it seems, the Republican governor said something Democrat House leaders didn't like. So Democrat House leaders decided to retaliate by cutting the proposed cigarette-tax increase in half.

Consequently, as I stood outside the crowded meeting room hoping to see a vote that would, at last, save and enhance human lives, I got to witness, instead, a backstabbing.

By a one-vote margin, Ways and Means Committee members passed a paltry 25-cent cigarette tax increase that-if enacted-won't discourage many young people from smoking, won't encourage many smokers to quit, and won't fund health care for nearly enough uninsured Hoosiers.

The Big Tobacco lobbyist just smiled and waved.

And yet, I dare hope.

I dare hope for a $1-a-pack increase that will bring us up to par with surrounding states.

I dare hope for full funding for the state agency that helps smokers quit and keeps kids from starting.

I dare hope that we can help all Hoosiers without health insurance-not just a fraction.

I dare hope because the full House can still amend and vote on this.

I dare hope because the Senate must weigh in too.

I dare hope because there will be an endof-session, middle-of-the-night conference committee that can still salvage this.

I dare hope because I believe in my unfit Hoosier heart that our public servants won't, in the end, stab millions of citizens in the back, as Big Tobacco lobbyists laugh all the way to Crown Hill Cemetery.



Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to bhetrick@ibj.com.
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