No-smoking advocates push for $1 tax hike on packs of cigarettes

ATLANTA — A mix of organizations announced Thursday efforts to get lawmakers to raise the tax on a pack of cigarettes by $1 as a way to increase state revenues and discourage teens from smoking.

This is the fourth year groups like the American Cancer Society and the American Lung Association have pushed for the tax hike. This year, they’re getting help from the retiree organization AARP and the Georgia Educators Association, who are seeking funds to prevent cuts to programs their members depend on.

The proposed increase would net $350 million yearly after accounting for a resulting decline in cigarette sales. That sales drop is the main point for no-smoking supporters who estimate that teen smoking could drop 16 percent because of the price increase.

Although the legislative session is half over, the advocates feel their momentum will grow as other organizations face the likelihood that they’re not going to avoid budget cuts any other way, according to Lee Hughes, a lobbyist for the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids.

“As we get down to crunch time, there are going to be more and more causes looking for ways to pay for their services,” he said.

In the past three years, the tax supporters rallied around a bill sponsored by Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Savannah. This year, he didn’t introduce his bill, so the groups are focusing on a sweeping tax-reform legislative package stemming from recommendations of a council of economists and business executives.

The tax reform council called for boosting the tax 31 cents to match the average of surrounding states. The advocates see that as an opening to persuade lawmakers to go further.

They note that Florida raised its tax by $1 in 2009. No Florida legislators were defeated as a result, they said, and Georgia’s tobacco revenue didn’t rise as a result of Floridians driving to the Peach State for cheaper smokes. That could mean that Georgia smokers won’t abandon stores in cities like Savannah and Augusta for South Carolina.

When Georgia legislators raised this state’s cigarette tax 25 cents in 2003, voters didn’t punish any of them, according to June Deen of the Lung Association.

“It’s still early in the session, and we think it’s got a pretty good chance to pass,” said Sarah Balog, lobbyist for the American Heart Association.

Gov. Nathan Deal has said he opposes any tax increases and will only go along with the tax-reform package because it is revenue neutral. And the law creating the tax-reform council requires the General Assembly to vote on all of the recommendations as presented, without amendment.

Still, the advocates remain unfazed, arguing that the last tobacco-tax increase took 10 years of lobbying.

“We’re going to keep talking about,” Deen said. “We’re not going away.”
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