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Editorial: Support for cigarette-tax hike should be too strong to ignore

February 8, 2019

It appears increasingly likely the General Assembly will fail to raise the cigarette tax this year. That wouldn’t just deal a blow to efforts to improve Hoosier health. Legislative recalcitrance on this issue would also be another reminder of the troubles plaguing our politics.

In the face of broad support for House Bill 1565 from the public and a coalition of health care and business interests, legislators seem immovable on the issue.

The bill, sponsored by Republican Rep. Cindy Kirchhofer of Beech Grove, would raise the state’s cigarette tax to $3 a pack.

Health care interests support raising the tax for its potential to reduce smoking in Indiana, where 22 percent of adults smoke compared with the U.S. average of 15 percent. The U.S. Surgeon General touts higher cigarette costs as a key deterrent to smoking, especially among young people.

The Indiana Chamber is pushing for the tax hike as a way to reduce smoking’s cost to the state’s economy. The habit contributes to the state’s lowly public health rankings, making Indiana less attractive to some prospective employers. Cigarette-tax advocates say businesses in Indiana spend $6,200 a year in health care costs and lost productivity for each smoker they employ.

In addition, a poll commissioned by the chamber found 62 percent of the public backs the tax increase as well. This is a level of support that should be hard for legislators to ignore. Yet, as of this writing, the bill was languishing in the House Public Health Committee, where there is no sign it will see any action.

House members say they’re not interested in taking up the bill unless the Senate seems poised to support it, but senators don’t have much appetite for a tax hike.

Refusing to take up a bill with such broad support is a dereliction of duty symptomatic of today’s political environment.

Too many legislators are afraid of being attacked in the next election for raising taxes. Fear of being “primaried” over a tax hike—even one most people support—is one of the sad byproducts of a system where gerrymandered “safe” districts in too many instances make general-election results a foregone conclusion.

Some who would let the cigarette tax languish have a different narrow interest. Legislators who represent border counties want to protect the revenue generated by consumers in neighboring states who travel to get their smokes in Indiana, where cigarettes are relatively cheap. All adjacent states, even tobacco-friendly Kentucky, have higher cigarette taxes than Indiana, which last raised its tax in 2007.

While we reject these excuses for inaction and enthusiastically support raising a tax that can save lives and boost the economy, we don’t think government should be trusted to spend the extra revenue on whatever it wants.

It’s estimated the higher tax would generate an additional $500 million-plus per year, all of which should be dedicated to public health initiatives.

It’s hard to believe now, but Indiana was once recognized as a leader in public health policy. In 2000, the state adopted a plan under which 100 percent of the funds received from the federal tobacco settlement were dedicated to smoking cessation.

It was a proud bipartisan achievement that bears repeating. Our legislators should heed the overwhelming support for a cigarette-tax hike. Approve a higher tax, lawmakers, then lock down the revenue to improve Hoosier health.•

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To comment on this editorial, write to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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