Crist signs cigarette-tax hike, calls it a ‘health issue’

Gov. Charlie Crist signed into law a $1-per-pack cigarette tax hike Wednesday - the biggest of its kind in Florida history — saying he hopes to kill the habit that results in thousands of deaths every year.

“I view it more as a health issue than a tax issue,” said Crist, a Republican who broke with a career-long opposition to tax increases. ” Ronald Reagan used to say if you want to kill something, tax it. It wouldn’t be bad if we killed smoking. It would save a lot of lives.”

As of July 1, Florida’s new cigarette tax is $1.34 per pack. An equivalent increase applies to smokeless and pipe tobacco, but not cigars.

The extra $1 tax is expected to generate more than $900 million a year, to be used to offset Medicaid costs and fund cancer research.

Higher cigarette taxes mean teenagers will never pick up the habit, and addicted adults might quit, said Brenda Olsen, an American Lung Association lobbyist.

Though Florida’s tax has remained flat for two decades, smoking rates have steadily declined. About 19 percent of adults, or less than 2 million Floridians over 18, smoke.

Still, smoking is linked to 28,600 deaths a year in Florida and requires $6 billion to treat tobacco-related illnesses, state analysts say.

“The rate of smoking goes down as the cost of smoking goes up,” Olsen said. “We’re not trying to make the product illegal; we saw what happened with Prohibition [in the 1920s]. But we certainly work very hard to create a smoke-free Florida and a smoke-free America.”

With the increase, Florida’s cigarette tax goes from sixth-lowest in the nation to slightly above the national average of $1.23 a pack.

Still, Florida’s Deep South neighbors have some of the lowest levies in the nation. Among them: Georgia (37 cents), Alabama (42 cents) and South Carolina (7 cents).

New York has the highest cigarette tax, at $2.75 a pack.

Florida’s tax hike is a double whammy for smokers. The federal tax on cigarettes went up 62 cents in April, from 39 cents a pack to $1.01.

David Sutton, a spokesman for the parent company of Philip Morris, said Florida’s tax hike would prompt many consumers to seek tax-free ways to buy their smokes, whether on an Indian reservation or the Internet.

“Obviously, it’s a big hit to our consumers and to retailers as well,” he said. “You’ve got a very difficult economy out there.”

The decision to raise cigarette taxes also has political dimensions for Florida’s Republican leaders. Crist, who is running for U.S. Senate, had never supported a tax increase in his political career dating back to his time in the state Senate in the 1990s. At a news conference, the governor said the budget doesn’t include any “broad-based tax increases,” noting most Floridians don’t smoke.

Legislative Republicans, who have resisted higher taxes since coming to power in 1996, also embraced the tax amid a $6 billion budget deficit.

© Copyright: Orlandosentinel

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