Posted by: audreybenenati | February 8, 2010

EDITORIAL: Cigarette tax should fund specific programs to be worthwhile

Published: February 7, 2010

South Carolina State Superintendent of Education Jim Rex proposed on Monday a cigarette tax increase that he says would resolve some of the state’s short-term education needs and long-term health concerns.

The Democratic gubernatorial candidate called for raising the state’s tax — the lowest in the nation — to improve health care and offer more access to smoking-prevention programs. In the more immediate future, Rex would like to use some of the additional tax revenues to prevent the mandatory five-day teacher furloughs under consideration by the General Assembly. Ultimately, all the additional money raised by the tax would go toward health care, Rex said.

The state Senate is considering a 50-cent increase in the cigarette tax, which has been 7 cents a pack since 1977. Rex, however, wants a $1.27 increase, which would bring South Carolina’s tax in line with the national average.

The topic of raising the cigarette tax is a major issue, regardless of who’s making the proposal. In 2008, the Legislature passed a 50-cent increase, but was unable to override Gov. Mark Sanford’s veto.

Generally, no one wants to push too hard for higher taxes. That’s true even for tobacco products, which are known for causing cancer, high death rates and runaway medical costs. And it’s even truer in a big tobacco-producing region such as the Pee Dee.

Nonetheless, the prospect of raising the cigarette tax has merit.

“We’re in a budgetary crisis, with no end in sight and very few good options,” Rex said. “That means we’ve got to be a lot more creative and a lot more courageous.”

Rex’s suggestion is a creative way to patch a gap in the education budget, but it also could stop adults, youths and children from smoking if it’s implemented smartly.

Therefore, for a cigarette tax increase to be worthwhile, it should be a meaningful amount intended to fund specific programs. Efforts for smoking prevention and cessation should certainly be considered among those — our state shouldn’t expect smokers to be deterred by higher cigarette costs alone.

The tax increase can’t be arbitrary, because we don’t know whether the 50-cent or $1.27 proposals will fit our state’s needs. The increase should be a specific amount that would raise the appropriate amount of money for the specific programs it would fund.

Ideally, a higher cigarette tax gradually would make itself obsolete. If smoking-prevention programs work, people should stop buying cigarettes, and the state would collect less tax revenue. But that would be fine, because the health problems caused by smoking — along with the high medical costs associated with the habit — would decrease.

Overall, the tax increase is something to seriously consider, but it must be targeted for specific programs and not passed just for taxation’s sake.


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