Health awareness organizations lobby legislators for higher cigarette tax

By Rozella Hardin

   April 3 is Lobby Day on the Hill, and a number of health awareness organizations including the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association, and the American Lung Associates will have representatives in Nashville to lobby for their causes.
   "Advocacy is a real key in the prevention of cancer," said Kim Burrows, a representative of the Johnson City Regional Chapter of the American Cancer Society. "Our lobbying efforts in Washington and Nashville have certainly paid off with passage of the Breast/Cervical Act, which provides mammograms and pap smears to women who are unable to afford them," she said.
   "Last year, we were unsuccessful in our efforts to get tobacco monies appropriated for health issues. Instead, Tennessee legislators used the money to balance the state budget. If we don't like the way the tobacco monies are being spent, we need to tell our legislators," Burrows said. "We will be back on the Hill this year to ask that part if not all of the tobacco dollars be allocated to the teen smoking prevention program and to other health causes," she said.
   Flo Bellamy, chairman of the Johnson County Relay for Life Campaign, is among those who will be representing the American Cancer Society in Nashville. "I went last year, and am planning to go this year. When I was first approached about being an advocate, my rely was 'I don't do politics.' Sandy Trivette of the Johnson City Office said, 'Flo, if you don't do politics, it will do you.' Guess what, I ended up going," she said.
   Among the requests the representatives from the three nonprofit agencies will be taking to lawmakers this week is to raise the cigarette tax.
   "The tobacco tax in Tennessee is one of the lowest in the nation -- only North Carolina and Virginia have lower tobacco taxes in states surrounding Tennessee," said Burrows.
   She noted that earlier this year, the Senate Finance Committee of the Tennessee General Assembly deadlocked on a proposal to raise the tax on a pack of cigarettes from 13 cents to 43 cents. The bill was proposed by Sen. Rosalind Kurita of Clarksville, who claimed the increased cost would cut down on the number of young people who begin smoking.
   Cigarettes are one of the most heavily taxed consumer products in the United States. Nevertheless, proposals to further increase cigarette taxes are made frequently -- usually to fund new or expanded government programs. The federal excise tax on cigarettes was increased by five cents on January 1, 2002, bringing the current federal excise tax to 39 cents per pack.
   The average state excise tax on cigarettes was 39 cents per pack in 2000. In Tennessee, state and federal taxes combine for a total of $5.20 per carton, resulting in smokers crossing the states lines into Virginia and North Carolina to buy cigarettes, where the tax is lower than Tennessee's.
   Tennessee has the highest percentage of teen smokers in the nation, with 41 percent of teens using tobacco products, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC and the U.S. surgeon general have reported that many smokers -- particularly those who are young or low-income -- will quit or smoke less in response to price increases.
   A survey of teen smoking habits recently released by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids says there is mounting evidence that higher cigarette prices significantly reduce smoking rates. The survey, conducted by researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, found that higher cigarette prices keep teen-agers from becoming regular, addicted smokers and discourage teens from experimenting with cigarettes.
   "We have a real problem with teens smoking in Tennessee," said Burrows.
   According to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, a 26-cent cigarette tax increase in Tennessee will result in 18,900 kids saved from the addiction of cigarettes, and $370 million in lower health care costs treating tobacco-caused illnesses. In addition, the cigarette tax hike would significantly increase state revenues by over $140 million say advocates.
   Tennessee, whose current 13-cent-per-pack cigarette tax is the seventh-lowest in the country, is one of 20 states considering sharp increases in tobacco taxes this year. Under Tennessee law, 99 percent of tobacco tax proceeds are earmarked for K-12 education.
   "Tennessee hasn't increased the excise tax since before man first walked on the moon in 1969," said Janice Nolen, director of programs for the American Lung Association. "At 13 cents per pack, we're woefully beneath the national average of 42 cents per pack," she said.
   However, tobacco lobbyists, such as those who work for the R.J. Reynolds Co., contend that since most smokers are working Americans who earn a middle-class income or less, a cigarette tax increase hits working people hardest. New cigarette taxes would hit farmers, factory workers, truck drivers and people who work in small businesses.
   Current state taxes range from 21-1/2 cents in Virginia to $1.425 per pack in Washington.
   RJRT says that governments (federal, state and local) make over 9 times more money from the sale of an average pack of cigarettes than RJRT does as a cigarette manufacturer.
   "We know we are going up against the powerful tobacco lobbyists, but if we don't become involved, then we will pay through lives," said Burrows, who was recruiting advocates locally at the recent kick-off for the annual Carter County Relay for Life.