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$64 million tax bite for Utah smokers, senator warns

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As the tobacco debate rages in the U.S. Senate, an opponent of raising tobacco taxes, Sen. John Ashcroft, R-Mo., says Utahns who smoke will be paying $64 million a year in increased federal taxes.

It actually will be much more than that, says a spokesman for Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who has a competing tobacco bill to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. - the bill that's being debated this week.The McCain bill may topple of its own weight, Senate leaders say. That could open the way for Hatch's measure or some other compromise.

Ashcroft, in mailings to all 50 states, analyzed what the McCain bill will mean to smokers, especially to low-income smokers, who he defines as those making less than $30,000 a year.

According to Center for Disease Control figures for 1995, 13.2 percent of Utahns smoke. That's 160,600 people. At an increase of $1.10 a pack, and smoking one pack a day, Utahns who smoke would be paying an extra $64 million a year in federal tobacco taxes in five years - the end of the phase-in of a $1.10 a pack tax increase.

Lower-income Utahns - those making less than $30,000 a year -would be paying $38 million a year more in tobacco taxes.

Utah State Health Department officials have newer numbers. They say that 15.9 percent of Utahns smoke, or 202,853 people, according to 1996 figures. Any tobacco hike would mean even more money coming from smoking Utahns - $81 million a year at a $1.10 per-pack tax hike, the smoker using one pack per day.

Utah has the lowest percentage of population of smokers in the U.S. That's largely because of the high number of members of the LDS Church in the state; the church teaches members to refrain from using tobacco products.

Of course, one of the goals of the tobacco tax increases is to get people - especially teenagers - to either stop smoking or never start in the first place.

Hatch's bill, said a spokesman for the Senate Judiciary Committee, which Hatch chairs, said an analysis prepared by a national investment firm shows the McCain bill will, after other markups take place, really add more than $3.50 per pack to the price of cigarettes after five years, not just the $1.10 tax increase the legislation calls for.

Hatch's bill would add about $1.50 per pack in fees to tobacco products. "That's around where President Clinton says we should be with a tobacco tax increase," said the committee spokeman.

Hatch has said previously that the McCain bill could break the U.S. tobacco industry, causing it to go bankrupt. If that happened, a black market would start in cigarettes and more, not fewer, teenagers could become addicted to smoking, he says.

Ashcroft says it's an outrage for Americans (who smoke) to pay such higher taxes. "Congress should be working to reduce the burden of taxes, not cooking up ways to extract even more from people who already are paying taxes at a record pace."