Editorial: It’s time to raise the cigarette tax

Cigarette smoking continues to be a scourge that kills way too many Hoosiers, and we need to do more to stop it.

Each year, more than 11,000 people in Indiana die prematurely from cigarette smoking, and more than 1,400 die prematurely from exposure to secondhand smoke, according to Rethink Tobacco Indiana.

Any death from smoking is one too many. But Indiana has more than its fair share. Hoosier adult smoking rate is the 10th-highest among the states at 19.2%; the national rate is 13.7%.

Clearly, Indiana is not doing enough to stop smoking, the No. 1 preventable cause of death in our state. State funding for prevention programs has slowed considerably in recent years, down to $7.5 million annually from as much as $35 million a year.

We are all paying a price for Indiana government’s lack of commitment to this cause. Tobacco use results in $7.6 billion in health care costs and lost productivity in Indiana each year.

As Dr. Richard Feldman, the state’s former health commissioner, has noted, these losses include $590 million in state Medicaid costs and an additional cost of $5,800 yearly to businesses and industries for each employee who smokes.

There is an answer that could put a quick dent in Indiana’s smoking rate: significantly raising the state cigarette tax.

Lawmakers have shown a great reluctance to do so, even though Indiana’s tax is the 39th-lowest in the country at 99 cents per pack.

In fact, last year the Legislature actually lowered the tax on vaping products, reducing it from 25% of the wholesale price to 15%. Lawmakers argued that the change simply corrected an error from the previous year and that the tax was lowered to create more parity with similar products.

But the Legislature’s real error is in failing to tax smoking of all forms at a level that helps act as a deterrent and provides significant funding to improve public health.

Indiana hasn’t increased its cigarette tax since 2007, despite a consistent push from Indiana representatives of the American Cancer Society. In recent years, the Indiana Chamber of Commerce also has joined the call for a higher tax.

During the 2023 legislative session, both organizations will be pushing for a $2-per-pack tax increase. Such a move would generate $371 million a year in new revenue that could go toward tobacco-control programs and a push by the Governor’s Public Health Commission to raise public health spending.

Indiana currently ranks 48th in terms of the amount of money it spends on public health. And it shows, as the state ranks as the fifth most obese and weighs in at No. 41 in overall health, according to America’s Health Rankings.

Despite those embarrassing numbers, one key legislative leader is still predicting that a cigarette tax hike will have difficulty passing this year.

As the Indiana Capitol Chronicle reported, House Speaker Todd Huston noted that a tax hike previously has cleared his chamber but likely will continue to face opposition in the Senate.

Hoosiers deserve a better outcome. It’s past time for the Legislature to look beyond the influence of the tobacco lobby and raise the cigarette tax by $2 a pack.•

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