Legislators likely to hike cigarette tax to help deficit

When Marianne Jordan, of Norwalk, heard this week that Democrats in the Legislature were once again considering increasing the cigarette tax, she fired off a frustrated letter to her state representatives, asking them to oppose the move.

“I think it’s ridiculous,” said Jordan, who estimated she smokes about a half a pack daily. “Even if I didn’t smoke, I’d still think it’s ridiculous.”

Earlier this spring, Democrats proposed a two-year budget that included raising the cigarette tax from $2 to $2.50 to help address a deficit estimated at billions of dollars.

A vote was never held on that spending plan, but the General Assembly is expected to act on a revised budget later this week or early next week that could hike the tax higher than initially proposed.

“We’re looking at 50 cents, we’re looking at 75 cents and what it would raise,” said state Rep. Cameron Staples, D-New Haven, a chairman of the Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee.

According to data provided by the state budget office, the $2 tax on cigarettes is anticipated to bring in about $315 million in the current fiscal year.

The Democrats’ earlier budget proposal estimated that a 50-cent increase would result in an additional $32 million in revenue in the 2009-10 fiscal year, and $63 million the following years.

“Nothing at this point is set in concrete,” Staples said.

But his co-chairman, state Sen. Eileen Daily, D-Westbrook, who smokes, said an increase is likely.

That angered state Rep. Terry Backer, D-Stratford, a pack-a-day smoker.

“They go to the well way too many times,” Backer said of the continued increases.

In 2002, lawmakers for the first time since 1994 hiked cigarette taxes from 50 cents to $1.11.

Another increase was passed in 2003, bringing the tax to $1.51.

An additional 49 cents was tacked on in 2007, resulting in the current $2 rate.

“I think it’s become almost punitive to a minority population who smoke,” said Backer, arguing his colleagues shy away from imposing higher so-called sin taxes on more universally acceptable items, such as alcohol.

“No one’s going to go near alcohol in a significant way because almost everybody drinks to some extent,” Backer said.

Lawmakers often find it easier to hike the cigarette tax because proponents, including the American Lung Association of Connecticut, argue it improves public health.

“We know from the past that when there are significant tax increases, smoking decreases overall 3 to 4 percent,” said Margaret LaCroix, a Lung Association spokeswoman, noting that a $7 or $8 pack of cigarettes prices youths out of the market.

That appealed to state Sen. Antonietta “Toni” Boucher, R-Wilton, who, despite her party’s arguing that this is not the year for tax increases of any kind, admitted it is easier to give the green light to a higher cigarette tax.

“My father died at the age of 65 from smoking, and his parents died within a week of each other,” also from smoking-related illnesses, Boucher said. “The high cost has encouraged many people to seek a smoking cessation program and work hard at trying to stop. … So raising fees of those types tend to be more easily agreed to.”

And while some lawmakers argue that the result is diminishing returns to state coffers, LaCroix said that has not been the case.

“The cigarette companies spend millions of dollars every year marketing to a whole new generation of smokers,” LaCroix said.

Data from the state budget office shows revenue from the smoking tax has fluctuated over the years, from $272.6 million in 2006, to $269.7 million in 2007, to $335.5 in 2008, and down to this year’s $315 million estimate.

Jordan said she is trying to quit.

“But friends that I know that smoke, they’ll keep buying them,” she said.

Daily said she, too, is trying to break the habit but so far has been unsuccessful.

“As a smoker, every time I have voted for an increase, I say, ‘Please, God, make me never pay this,’ ” Daily said.

Another criticism of the hikes is that they target the middle- and lower-income residents the Legislature’s Democratic majority argues it is trying to protect from harmful budget cuts or income taxes.

“I have to tell you, even though there’s good data about people stopping cigarettes online buy, there’s also data that show the greatest number of smokers are in low-income groups,” Daily said. “But that middle and lower class are protected in the rest of the (Democrats’ proposed) budget. And in order to run state programs, the state needs revenue.”

LaCroix said that ideally, Connecticut would set aside some of the cigarette tax for anti-smoking programs, but lawmakers said that is unlikely in this deficit year.

The Democrats have backed off an earlier proposal to eliminate various sales tax exemptions, including those for nicotine gums, inhalants and patches purchased by those wanting to quit.

Stan Sorkin, head of the Connecticut Food Association, said the group, which lobbies for supermarkets and grocery stores, is concerned about the increase.

“But we’re not lobbying actively against it,” Sorkin said. “At this stage of the game we don’t think (lawmakers) are listening.”

source: www.connpost.com

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