Raising state tobacco tax will save lives, save state money

State Sen. Mike Gloor of Grand Island said introduction of legislation to increase the state’s tax on tobacco products has been needed for a long time.

Under the proposal Gloor introduced on Tuesday, the state’s cigarette tax would increase from 64 cents per pack to $1.99 per pack. That increase in the cigarette tax is estimated to generate $111 million in revenue, along with another $4.5 million in new revenue from taxes on other tobacco products.

Currently, a pack of cigarettes can run between $4 and $6 per pack and a carton of cigarettes can cost $50 or more.

Gloor’s legislation also includes an earmark to replace a proposed funding cut to the Tobacco Control and Prevention fund that educates young people and others about the health dangers of tobacco addiction. Another earmark would replace a proposed funding cut to health care providers through Medicaid that takes care of people with long-term health problems due to tobacco addiction. The earmarks total about $31 million. The rest of the revenue would go to the general fund to be used for state expenditures.

Gloor said Nebraska has come a long way in terms of clean air and better health with efforts to reduce smoking so far. In 2009, Nebraska went smoke free, with no smoking in bars and restaurants. A year earlier, the city of Grand Island implemented a similar citywide nonsmoking ban.

“We can still do more,” he said. “My proposed increase to $1.99 tax per pack on cigarettes, with a similar increase on other tobacco products, will help us take the next step in reducing heart disease, lung disease and cancers caused by smoking and tobacco use.”

Gloor said his background as the former president/chief executive officer of St. Francis Medical Center motivated him to introduce the legislation. Under his leadership, he said, St. Francis became the second hospital in Nebraska to ban tobacco use on its grounds.

“My whole career has been about health and keeping people healthy,” he said.

Gloor said raising the cost of tobacco products through increased taxation has been an effective way to ease the stranglehold of tobacco addiction on people as it becomes a financial incentive to quit tobacco use.

“That is especially true among your youth as it can be as dramatic as between 20 to 25 percent either give it up or don’t start,” Gloor said.

He said tobacco manufacturers could absorb a tax increase, but “I expect this will be passed on to consumers. That will reduce consumption, as well as keep the funding level for prevention efforts at current levels.”

Also, as a former hospital administrator, he had a deeper motivation to get people to quit their tobacco addiction — the personal health cost to individuals and society.

“We sometimes forget, when we are talking about cigarette tax, that the reason we or any other state has one is to try to recapture the costs associated with taking care of people with smoking-related illnesses,” Gloor said.

He said the long-term implications of getting people to quit their tobacco addiction are huge for Nebraska and society in general. It would save $500 million in long-term health care costs, 20,000 young Nebraskans would not take up smoking, and 9,400 Nebraska lives would be saved from premature smoking-related deaths.

Tobacco addiction causes 8,800 deaths annually in Nebraska, according to the American Cancer Society.

Gloor introduced the bill the same day that the Nebraska Chapter of the American Cancer Society released its polling results. Those results found that 73 percent of Nebraska voters surveyed support raising the tobacco tax by $1.35 per pack to help fix the state’s finances and fund health care programs, including programs to reduce tobacco use among kids.

According to the poll, support cuts across party lines, with 74 percent of Republicans, 72 percent of Democrats and 75 percent of independent voters supporting the tobacco tax increase.

The poll was released by a coalition of public health groups, including the American Cancer Society, American Heart Association, American Lung Association in Nebraska and the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

“These results show that voters across Nebraska understand raising the tobacco tax is a smart way to protect health care funding and support programs that help smokers quit,” said David Holmquist, director of government relations for the American Cancer Society in Nebraska.

Nebraska’s current cigarette tax of 64 cents per pack ranks the state 38th in the nation and is well below the national average of $1.45 per pack, the American Cancer Society said.

Gloor said the last time the state raised the tobacco tax was in the early part of the last decade.

“But the cost of health care during that time has gone up dramatically,” he said.

Illnesses that come with tobacco addiction and associated illnesses cost Nebraska an estimated $130 million.

“But what that doesn’t include is all the people who are in long-term care and who are being paid for by taxpayers under Medicaid for long-term care in nursing homes with lung disease, emphysema, congestive heart failure, and they are in those nursing homes because they were smokers,” Gloor said.

He said it’s not a tax that all people have to pay — just those who are addicted to tobacco products.

“It is not a tax anybody has to pay,” he said. “It is one of the few taxes you can say you are not paying it. The way you make that protest is you stop smoking.”

By Robert Pore, Theindependent
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