Case for improving health by raising Kentucky’s tobacco tax making headway in Frankfort

smoke-cigLOUISVILLE, Ky. (Jan. 25, 2018) — The chances for improving Kentucky’s health by reducing the state smoking rate through a $1 or more per pack cigarette tax increase are better than they’ve been in years, according to the Coalition for a Smoke-Free Tomorrow.

Comprising nearly 150 health, business and advocacy organizations, the Coalition is advocating for the increase to prevent youth tobacco use and significantly reduce smoking in the commonwealth, particularly among kids, teens, and pregnant women.

Gov. Matt Bevin’s news release regarding his 2018-19 budget proposal specifically referenced raising the tobacco tax in connection with tax reform, and the Senate Health and Welfare Committee last week passed a resolution supporting the increase. Dozens of advocates began meeting with legislators in Frankfort once the current session began on January 2, and fundraising by the Coalition is gaining momentum. In addition, a recent poll found that 69 percent Kentucky voters support raising the cigarette tax by $1 per pack; that support rose to 73 percent when respondents heard about the specific health benefits and revenue from the tax increase, and it held strong across voters regardless of political party affiliation.

The Kentucky Health Collaborative recently added the weight of its 10 member hospital systems to the Coalition’s growing list of partners. Ephraim McDowell Health President and CEO Sally Davenport is executive sponsor of the Collaborative’s Tobacco-Free Initiative, and also a member of the Coalition for a Smoke-Free Tomorrow Steering Committee.

“Kentucky can no longer ignore the damage that tobacco use is doing to the wellbeing of our citizens, and the financial condition of our health care system,” Davenport said. “We have at our fingertips a proven tool to dramatically cut smoking rates and prevent tobacco use among today’s youth and for generations to come. It’s time, Kentucky. The Collaborative is committed to the Coalition’s goals of getting this enacted.”

Two physicians who lead Kentucky’s two major cancer treatment and research centers came together at the January 17 Senate panel hearing to testify about the health and financial costs of tobacco use in Kentucky.

Dr. Mark Evers of the Markey Cancer Institute in Lexington told Senators at the hearing that raising Kentucky’s cigarette tax by $1 or more per pack, with equivalent increases on taxes for other tobacco products, would be the “most impactful thing they could do to improve Kentucky’s health in their lifetimes.”

“I don’t typically support tax increases, but I support this health policy measure 100 percent,” said Dr. Jason Chesney of the James Graham Brown Cancer Center in Louisville.

“Kentucky is the cancer capital of the nation,” said Ben Chandler, Chair of the Coalition. “A higher proportion of Kentuckians get cancer than anywhere else in the nation, and a higher percentage of Kentuckians die of cancer. Kentucky also has the distinction of being the state where the highest percentage of cancers are tied to smoking. That news resonates with lawmakers who are looking for a fiscally responsible way to help end the physical suffering and financial strain that cancer, heart disease and other tobacco-related illness puts on Kentucky families.”

Kentucky Chamber of Commerce Senior Vice President Ashli Watts testified in support of the tax increase at the January 17 hearing as well, saying that that the measure has the overwhelming support of Kentucky’s business community. Watts highlighted Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data, which estimates that smoking related health expenditures in Kentucky total nearly $2 billion a year. Kentucky businesses eat about $2.7 billion in lost productivity due to smoking, she added.

“Kentucky’s high smoking rate is not only killing us; it’s bankrupting us,” she said.

According to Coalition partners, raising Kentucky’s cigarette tax from its current level of 60 cents per pack – the 43rd lowest rate in the country – to $1.60 or higher will:

• Reduce Kentucky’s youth smoking rate by 11.2 percent;
• Keep 23,200 kids from becoming adults who smoke;
• Lead 29,400 adults to quit smoking; and
• Reduce the number of smoking-affected pregnancies and births by 5,900 over five years.

The measure also will raise more than $266 million a year in new revenues.

According to the latest CDC data, 24.5 percent of Kentucky adults smoke, which is 58 percent higher than the national average of 15.5 percent. And 16.9 percent of Kentucky youth smoke, more than double the national rate of 8 percent. Among pregnant women in Kentucky, 20.6 percent are smokers.

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  • Are they proposing that the increased revenues from this tax ($266MM) be earmarked for smoking cessation programs or will it be used to help fund the general budget shortfall mostly caused by the underfunded pension?

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