OP-ED: Tax increase on tobacco just adds up

The following is an op-ed written by the Coalition for a Smoke-Free Tomorrow. The Kentucky Chamber is a member of this coalition and advocates for a tax increase on cigarettes in Kentucky.

How does Kentucky overcome a challenge that seems insurmountable? How can we eliminate a cultural touchstone that seems so ingrained into who we are as a state that some feel it is impossible to remove?

Simple. We take a stand and implement strong measures that are essentially proven to save lives.

That is exactly what has been proposed by a coalition of more than 100 health care, business, education and advocacy groups that make up the Coalition for a Smoke-Free Tomorrow.

The group has called on the Kentucky legislature to raise the state tax on cigarettes by $1 per pack.

The organization believes “this $1 increase would keep 23,200 of today’s youth from becoming adult smokers, and prevent 5,900 infants from being born too early due to smoking during pregnancy. Another 29,400 current adult smokers would quit.”

Something clearly has to change. Almost 9,000 Kentuckians die every year of smoking-related illness. That’s more than opioid or prescription drug overdoses, something everyone considers an epidemic.

So why would we accept these tobacco-related deaths?

Made up of a diverse group, the coalition includes the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association, American Lung Association, American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, Baptist Health Kentucky, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, Kentucky Center for Smoke-Free Policy, Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, Kentucky Council of Churches, Kentucky Voices for Health, and Kentucky Youth Advocates.

Ben Chandler, chair of the coalition’s steering committee, said in a prepared release this proposal is “a win for business leaders in the Commonwealth who currently lose nearly $2.8 billion every year in reduced productivity due to smoking. The extra cost for businesses adds up to an estimated $5,816 per employee every year. Economic development experts also know that Kentucky’s high smoking rate — the second highest in the nation at 24.5 percent, right behind West Virginia, and 62 percent higher than the national average — makes it harder to attract new business and jobs to the Commonwealth. That’s why so many of Kentucky’s leading employers and economic development officials support the increase.”

This proposal makes sense financially as well.

The $1 increase is projected to generate more than $266 million in new revenue, which would address the state’s budget shortfall and provide much-needed funding to save the state’s pension systems without breaking past promises.

Coalition officials contend that, with the 43rd lowest state tobacco tax in the nation at only 60 cents, raising the tax by $1 would keep Kentucky’s tax below the national average of $1.71 and leave it comparable to the average price in bordering states.

“It’s time to enact the proven measures that will reduce smoking and its related illnesses, reduced quality of life and massive health care expenditures in Kentucky,” Chandler said. “We can honor our tobacco heritage without allowing it to continue plaguing both our health and our economy. We urge you to contact your legislators and tell them you support a $1 tobacco tax increase because it’s a win-win-win for Kentucky.”

The time for talking has passed. We need firm action.

Kentuckians deserve it. The health of our state depends on it.

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