Lake may make a run at cigarette tax hike in an election year

Rep. Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, and a coalition headed up by the American Cancer Society (ACS) may team up next year to bring a bill to increase the state’s cigarette tax.

If the coalition behind Lake pushes the bill, the group will ask for a hike of $1.25 per pack. Idaho’s tax on cigarettes is the eighth lowest in the nation at 57 cents per pack and the lowest in the Inland Northwest. The nationwide average sits at $1.45 per pack in state taxes.

Cigarette Taxes

Rising cigarette taxes

If the tax is successfully raised, it would put Idaho at $1.82 per pack, good for 15th-highest in the country.

Lake told that is he serving as an “errand boy” for ACS and will bring the bill if the group asks him to do so. The potential legislation comes with a dual purpose: to reduce youth smoking rates and pay for some of the societal costs of tobacco use.

“Smokers don’t pay anywhere near the cost of their tobacco use,” Lake said, adding that instead of a tax hike, the potential legislation could instead be viewed as a user fee.

Heidi Low, government relations director for ACS, said that evidence in other states shows that youth smoking takes a large hit when taxes are hiked.

It’s estimated that use of cigarettes and other forms of tobacco cost Idaho’s Medicaid at least $83 million annually. Overall, analysts say tobacco use costs Idahoans as much as $319 million in health-related costs each year.

Idaho could raise more than $50 million in new money annually if the plan successfully makes its way through the Legislature. Lake says there is no definite plan for spending the money, but says it won’t go to the general fund because some lawmakers don’t want the government to have any more money than is absolutely necessary. “They want to squeeze down government and the only way they can do it is by starving it,” Lake said.

Low said that she would like to see the money primarily dedicated to quitting smoking and health care-related programs.

How likely is it that tax hike advocates get the plan through both chambers of the Statehouse and onto the governor’s desk in 2012, which is an election year? “It’s a difficult challenge,” Lake warned, but noted that the coalition supporting the plan has some clout with legislators. “They also vote and have some political muscle.”

Low wouldn’t comment on the politics of the matter, but said that there is support for the tax increase. “We as a coalition know this is good for Idaho and its youth,” Low explained.

But a hike in the tax could mean low-income Idahoans pay more for their cigarettes. The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Washington, D.C., notes that poor or low income people make up at least half the total smokers and would bear a significant share of the cost of a tax hike. “A tobacco tax disproportionately burdens low-income Americans,” the group wrote in a 2007 editorial.

Lake says he’s unsure of when the group might decide if it wants to bring the legislation. “It’s their decision, not mine,” he explained. Low said the group will continue working with lawmakers and decide at some point in the future.

The Blackfoot Republican was poised to bring the bill earlier this year, but eventually declined because he felt it wouldn’t have enough votes to make it out of his own committee.

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