Advocates for heart health urge raising cigarette tax by $1 to reduce smoking, a major cause of heart disease

Representatives and volunteers with the American Heart
Association and the state chapter of the American College
of Cardiology rallied in Frankfort on Valentine's Day to urge
lawmakers to raise the cigarette tax by $1 for heart health.
By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

FRANKFORT, Ky. -- At a Feb. 14 rally in the state Capitol, advocates for heart health urged lawmakers to raise Kentucky's cigarette tax as a way to reduce smoking, a known cause of heart disease.

"We are here on Valentine's Day, the day which celebrates love, to ask our legislators and governor to do something that will have a profound and long lasting impact on the health of all of us Kentuckians," said Dr. Andy Henderson, president of the American Heart Association's Central Kentucky Board of Directors. "We are asking them to protect the hearts of all Kentuckians by raising the tax on cigarettes by at least $1 per pack."

Smoking kills about 9,000 Kentuckians every year, with about one-third of those deaths from heart disease caused by smoking or second-hand smoke, according to the AHA. It is also responsible for many other heart related diseases, including stroke and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), of which Kentucky has the second highest rate in the nation.

Republican Sen. Ralph Alvarado, a Winchester physician, told the advocates that "the message is starting to soak in" with legislators, especially this budget year that is trying to address such a huge deficit. He noted that this tax, which would raise $266 million, could help to fill a half-billion-dollar gap.

Alvarado, who has sponsored several anti-tobacco bills, pointed out that support for raising the cigarette tax by $1 is backed by 70 percent of Kentuckians, the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, medical groups and the education system.

"We've got to do something to help reduce our youth smoking [rates], which are the worse in the country, and adult smoking rates and this would help us get there," he said."Continue to be advocates, contact your legislators and let them know what your stance is, advise them on how they could use those funds to help us with the current budget crisis."

Henderson, who is also the CEO of Lexington Clinic, reminded the crowd that Kentucky has some of the highest smoking rates in the nation for both teens and adults. He said raising the cigarette tax by $1 a pack would not only keep teens from smoking, but would cause an estimated 2,900 smokers to quit, saving the state an estimated "millions and millions of dollars in health care costs year after year." The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids estimates that raising the tax by $1 would result in 23,200 fewer Kentucky teens smoking.

Henderson said that he primarily supported this measure for its many health benefits, but added that there was no denying it would bring new revenue to a state that sorely needs it.

Withrow wields cigarette (Melissa Patrick photos)
"I've heard our leaders say they don't want any new taxes. This is not a new tax and no-one is being forced to pay the tax. If you don't want to pay it, don't smoke. It's that simple," he said.

While holding a huge mock-up of a cigarette, Dr. Patrick Withrow of Paducah, the 2018 governor-elect of the Kentucky chapter of the American College of Cardiology, also called on the state's lawmakers to raise the tax, noting that at 60 cents a pack, Kentucky has one of the lowest cigarette taxes in the nation. The national average is $1.72 per pack.

"The cigarette smoking tax is a win-win-win," said Withrow, a long-time volunteer of the American Heart Association. "It will improve the health of Kentuckians. It will reduce tobacco use. It will lower health care cost and it will help businesses -- and it will improve the coffers."

The rally was the fourth in a series sponsored by the Coalition for a Smoke-Free Tomorrow, which comprises nearly 150 organizations that support efforts to decrease smoking in the state, including the tax hike. The other rallies have focused on smoking and pregnancy, teenagers and behavioral health. The next rally, set for 11 a.m. Feb. 21 in the Capitol rotunda, will focus on smoking and cancer.

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