Smokers unfazed by Pa. tax threat

House discussing new levy on tobacco

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A proposal that would increase the state's cigarette tax to help balance the budget doesn't seem like it will change the habits of local smokers and has some groups calling for a new tax on smokeless tobacco and cigars.

A cigarette tax increase of 10 cents per pack is being discussed by House Democrats. Currently at $1.60 per pack, the cigarette tax is one of a few items legislators are looking at to increase revenue and balance the state's fiscal 2010-11 budget, and it may be the one most likely to be enacted.

With a budget deficit approaching $1.3 billion, an increase of 10 cents per pack would generate an additional $57.6 million in fiscal year 2010-11.

Legislators also are considering proposals to tax smokeless tobacco and cigar sales. The tax package could change before a vote on the final version.

At $1.60 per pack, the state's cigarette tax is not the highest in the country. Rhode Island's is $3.46 per pack, compared with the lowest at 17 cents in Missouri, according to data from the National Conference of State Legislatures, which includes increases effective July 1.

Jim Nagy, a 44-year-old smoker from Elizabeth Township, said state taxes probably won't stop at cigarettes, but there might be a "silver lining" to the increased tax.

"It's pushing people to not smoke anymore," he said.

Denise Feldbauer, 54, from Ingram, sometimes uses coupons to buy her cigarettes and would not like an increased tax, but it wouldn't keep her from lighting up.

"I think they've been taxed enough," she said. "They're trying to get people to quit ... people still smoke no matter the cost of [cigarettes]."

Smokers can cost the state money in the form of health-care costs from tobacco-related diseases, and taxes on cigarettes should cover these, said Bill Godshall, executive director of SmokeFree Pennsylvania.

Although he suggested raising the cigarette tax even more than is proposed, Mr. Godshall said these taxes need a limit.

"I don't think it's fair to tax products above and beyond the cost they incur just because a group of people don't like the product," he said.

Adult tobacco users are already paying a "huge" amount in taxes, said John Singleton, director of communications for Reynolds American Inc. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. sponsors NoCigTax.com, which encourages action against tobacco tax increases.

Some are looking at other potential revenue sources, like a tax on the sales of smokeless tobacco and cigars. Pennsylvania is the only state that doesn't tax those products.

In light of the revenue crisis facing the state and a budget shortfall, tax breaks on smokeless tobacco and cigars cannot be afforded, said Chris Lilienthal, communications director for the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center.

Because the state grows very little tobacco, farmers would be minimally impacted by a tax, he said. Creating a tax on these products would not only raise revenue, but also positively impact a younger generation of smokers, Mr. Lilienthal said.

"We concluded this is a type of tax that will actually help reduce tobacco usage among teens," he said.

While smokeless tobacco is addictive, it is far less deadly than cigarettes and, therefore, should be taxed less, Mr. Godshall said.

A high tax on smokeless tobacco and cigars is a bad idea, he said.

"You're going to have smokeless users switching to cigarettes because it's cheaper."

This could lead to more tobacco-related disease and death, he said.

Higher tobacco taxes could help smokers quit and raise revenue for the state, said Patrick Reynolds, executive director of the Foundation for a Smokefree America. Not all taxes are bad, and this one could break bad habits, he said.

"No, smokers aren't going to like it and they might claim that they aren't going to quit," Mr. Reynolds said. "Give them a few months ... and probably many of them are going to quit."

Jan Duffy, 54, from Coraopolis, said the higher taxes are unfair.

"My feeling is if you're going to tax people on something ... it should be something that everybody uses," she said.

Would she still smoke despite a higher tax? "I'm addicted ... of course I would."


Meredith Skrzypczak: mskrzypczak@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1964.


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