Numerous benefits to hike in tobacco tax

We’re all for raising the tax on cigarettes by $1 a pack.

In our view, anything that makes cigarettes more expensive accomplishes the goal of keeping people — young people, especially — from taking up the habit.

And as cigarettes become more of a drain on their daily finances, more and more smokers decide to give it up. Often, cost is the last straw that pushes longtime smokers to finally accomplish what they had procrastinated doing for many years previous.

Those are just the immediate benefits.

In the longer term, there are much greater benefits to be reaped. Medicaid costs for treating the innumerable health problems caused by smoking are reduced. Families don’t have to endure the suffering of premature loss of a loved one to cancer, heart disease and various other conditions brought on or exacerbated by smoking.

If the state can bring in more money in the process — $377 million by the latest estimate — all the better, we say.

But let’s be realistic about why this issue is coming up and what will happen to the new revenue it may generate. We may be anti-smoking zealots, but we don’t think anyone should be blinded by idealism as a cigarette tax increase is debated in the General Assembly.

We’d love nothing more than to see each new dollar collected from the cigarette tax go directly into the state’s health-care provider relief fund, thus generating federal matching funds to offset paying for the health-care costs associated with smoking.

Doing so would truly help in moving toward a point where, as one supporter of the tax increase said Monday, “the price for the product comes close to reflecting the true cost of the use of the product in our country.”

An equally forward-thinking idea would be to use all of the $377 million to fund an aggressive smoking cessation effort for Illinoisans. Not just public service ad campaigns, but providing resources for smokers who want to quit but have failed on their own. If reducing the costs associated with smoking is the goal, this would be the most direct path.

The reality, though, is that the state does not have the luxury of thinking in the long term about new money from tobacco. It needs to pay bills now, and that’s where the new cigarette tax money will go.

It was only 16 months ago, in the fall of 2009, that Gov. Pat Quinn was pushing the $1-a-pack tax to fund the MAP college grant program, which assists the lowest income college students in Illinois. The proposal went nowhere then, but appears to have a much better chance this time around. If it doesn’t pass this week, Senate President John Cullerton said it will be “one of the most important agenda items for the coming year.”

Whether this week or in the 2011 legislative session, we support this effort. Even with a $1.98-per-pack tax, Illinois still would not rank in the Top 10 of state cigarette taxes. (It would move from 32nd to 15th place.)

Yes, Illinois may lose some business to Missouri and Indiana, as smokers cross borders for cheaper cigarettes there. Ultimately, though, fewer Illinoisans will be buying cigarettes at all, and that’s a worthwhile tradeoff.


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