Poll finds 69 percent of Kentucky voters support increasing the state cigarette tax by $1 a pack, to $1.60

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

Seven of 10 Kentucky voters favor raising the state's cigarette tax by $1 a pack, according to a new poll released by the Coalition for a Smoke-Free Tomorrow, which favors the measure.

The poll, conducted Dec. 13-18 by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, found that 69 percent of registered voters surveyed supported a $1 cigarette-tax increase. The current 60-cent tax is about one-third of the national average of $1.71 per pack.

Support for a $1-a-pack increase rose to 73 percent when voters were told that the tax would raise about $250 million for the state, prevent about 20,000 young people from becoming smokers, and eventually save Kentuckians about $1 billion over the long-term in health-care costs as smoking rates declined over the next several years.

Ben Chandler
"The thing that is compelling about this kind of a levy is that it has this extra benefit that you don't get with other levies . . . it improves the health of the people of Kentucky," Ben Chandler, chair of the coalition, said in a telephone interview. "And in a state where you have the highest cancer rate in the nation, levying a further tax on tobacco and cigarettes is just that much more compelling."

The coalition says 34 percent of Kentucky's cancer deaths are related to smoking, nearly 9,000 Kentuckians die every year from smoking-related diseases, and if we don't reduce the rate of youth smoking, 119,000 of Kentucky children now younger than 18 will die prematurely.

Kentucky legislators entered the 2018 legislative session that opened Jan. 2 with a budget deficit of more than $150 million, and a need to find even more money to address the crisis in government pensions.

The poll asked about different ways the legislature could raise money to address the state's budget crisis; 52 percent of those polled favored increasing the cigarette tax, while only 19 percent supported increasing the sales tax to 7 percent from 6 percent.

"That is such a huge gap that it becomes very clear what voters want the legislature to do," said Chandler, who is also the president and CEO of the Foundation for Healthy Kentucky, which staffs the coalition. It made a grant to the American Heart Association to pay for the poll.

The poll also found 80 percent support for raising the tax on other tobacco products if the cigarette tax is raised. Among less popular taxes, 9 percent supported raising taxes on services, such as dry cleaning and car repair, and 4 percent supported applying the sales tax on groceries; 16 percent said they were not sure what taxes to raise.

"It is clear that voters – underline voters – feel that the way forward to dealing with the health issues in Kentucky and the revenue problem in Kentucky is a cigarette/tobacco tax," said Chandler, who was elected state auditor and attorney general and 6th District congressman.

The cigarette tax was overwhelmingly supported across party lines, with the differences falling within the poll's error margin of plus or minus 3.9 percentage points. Republicans, at 71 percent, supported raising the cigarette tax by $1 at a slightly higher rate than Democrats (67 percent) or independents (66 percent).

The Louisville metropolitan area (74 percent), the Bluegrass (77 percent) and Northern Kentucky (72 percent) showed the highest support for the tax, followed by Eastern Kentucky (64 percent) and Western Kentucky (61 percent).

Sen. Stephen Meredith
Sen. Stephen Meredith, R-Leitchfield, filed a bill Jan. 2 that would create a $1 "health care reimbursement assessment" on every pack of cigarettes sold in Kentucky. The bill calls for 90 percent of the money to go to a reimbursement fund for Medicaid treatment of tobacco-related illnesses. The remaining 10 percent would fund tobacco-cessation programs in counties that have comprehensive smoke-free ordinances.

Meredith told Kentucky Health News that he wasn't surprised by the results of the poll, and that a good thing about increasing the cigarette tax by $1 would be that it doesn't increase the tax burden for every Kentuckian, but only for those who use tobacco products, with the additional revenue going toward paying for tobacco-related illnesses.

"I think everybody thinks there needs to be more accountability in the health care delivery system and that is what we are attempting to do," he said. " If you want to smoke that is certainly your right and privilege, but don't make me as a non-smoker have to pay for your smoking related illnesses in the future."

Meredith added that the $1 increase would offer a multitude of benefits, including an economic incentive for tobacco users to quit, which would result in a healthier population, decreased health costs to the state, improved worker productivity, healthier children and fewer kids smoking.

Chandler said the coalition had not taken a position on the bill, but he personally would like to see the money generated from the tax spent on health-related programs. "The coalition does not have a position on how the money should be spent," he said. "We are in agreement that the levy ought to be instituted."

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