It's likely Utah lawmakers will raise the state's cigarette tax this year. The question is, will they do what 82 percent of residents want - hike the tax by 25 cents a pack?
Monday, the House Revenue and Taxation Committee declined to send Rep. Jordan Tanner's 25-cent-a-pack tobacco tax increase to the House floor for further action.After more than an hour of debate, committee members voted down Tanner's bill. They didn't vote on Rep. John Valentine's bill that would raise the tax by 4.5 cents per pack. Instead, the committee adjourned, asking Tanner and Valentine to get together to come up with a "consensus" piece of legislation.
But a Deseret News/KSL poll conducted in December shows Utahns like Tanner's bill. A whopping 82 percent approve of a 25-cent-per-pack cigarette increase. Only 15 percent oppose the tax hike, and 3 percent were undecided in a Dan Jones & Associates poll.
The 15 percent who opposed the measure is close to the number of adult smokers in the state. Utah Health Department officials said Monday about 16 percent of adult Utahns smoke, a percentage that has grown slightly in recent years.
But Tanner says he's not aiming his measure at adults. He wants to get to kids who start to smoke and then can't quit. Tanner, R-Provo, says only a tax hike can counteract what he calls "the devious" ad campaigns by "big tobacco" who spend upward of $5.2 billion a year in advertising, much of it aimed at children.
Several committee members said they believe there will be a cigarette tax increase this year. They worry, as does Valentine, that a big tax hike might result in bootlegging cigarettes into Utah.
Several said they don't like earmarking any new tax revenue for programs to fight teenage smoking. One must be 19 years old to smoke legally in Utah. Tanner's bill doesn't directly earmark the money but contains intent language that says the money should be spent in certain anti-smoking programs aimed at young people.
Only one resident spoke against the bill, a woman who said she represents the Utah Smokers Alliance with 2,000 members. She said there should be no tax increase this year, especially no tax hike on tobacco.
House Minority Assistant Whip Judy Ann Buffmire, D-Salt Lake, said one issue working against any tobacco tax increase is that some Utahns see it as a "sin tax."
Tanner and a troupe of health experts who testified on his behalf said Utah needs a two-prong approach. First, the price of cigarettes must go up a lot. That will stop cash-poor youths from buying cigarettes and "getting hooked" on the habit. Secondly, more money - a lot more money - must be spent on anti-smoking programs for the state's young people.
A penny increase in the tax roughly nets $1 million a year. However, the higher the tax goes, the fewer people smoke. So, in the ""upper"ranges of tax hike, a cent only brings in around $600,000, Valentine said.
While other states seem to be winning the battle with anti-smoking campaigns for young people, Utah doesn't seem to be. It's a great irony "for a state that says it values children and healthy lifestyles," Tanner said.
Over the past 10 years, smoking among the state's teenagers has increased 18 percent, said Steve Lindsley of the Utah Substance Abuse and Anti-violence Council. "Of great concern is that smoking by students in the seventh and eighth grades has increased 30 percent," said Lindsley.
Utah's cigarette tax is 26.5 cents per pack. A 25-cent increase would make the state tobacco tax 51.5 cents on a pack. That would push Utah's tax from the 30th highest in the nation to eighth highest.
Still, among surrounding states, Arizona's tax would be higher at 58 cents a pack. Wyoming, low at 12 cents, is considering raising its tax by 40 cents, Tanner said.
Valentine, R-Orem, admitted raising the tax a lot may have an effect on teenage smoking. But he said 4.5 cents is appropriate because that is what the 1996 Legislature passed. That increase was vetoed last year by Gov. Mike Leavitt because of an amendment placed in it in the Senate. Leavitt himself recommends a 9-cent-per-pack increase in his 1997-98 budget.
Tanner sponsored the 4.5-cent increase last year. But he said that was only a revenue enhancement bill aimed at "getting some more money" for some anti-smoking programs for the young.
"It's time for Utahns to do something bold, to take a stand" and fight the use of tobacco among young people, Tanner said.
One out of five kids who start smoking today will die an early death from its use, he added. Smoking costs the state $114 million a year in health-care costs, yet the current tax still leaves taxpayers to pick up $90 million of those costs.
Deseret News/KSL poll
Do you favor increasing the state tax on cigarettes by 25 cents per pack, with the extra tax money going for teenage smoking prevention?
Strongly favor 71%
Somewhat favor 11%
Somewhat oppose 4%
Strongly oppose 11%
Don't know 3%
This poll of 604 Utah residents was conducted by Dan Jones & Associates Dec. 10-12. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent. Copyright 1997 Deseret News.