A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Coalition for Smoke-Free Tomorrow says $1 tax will actually reduce impact of smoking on health

A Coalition of more than 150 organizations is calling on the Kentucky legislature to help reduce smoking rates among low-income and other vulnerable populations by raising the excise tax on cigarettes by at least $1 per pack. The Coalition for a Smoke-Free Tomorrow says an increase of at least $1 is necessary to reduce the impact of smoking on Kentuckians’ health and the economy; much less, and “it’s just a tax” with no health benefits.

“Members of these communities are heavily targeted by tobacco industry advertising and coupons, so they tend to use tobacco at much higher rates than Kentuckians overall,” said Emily Beauregard, executive director of Kentucky Voices for Health. “Big tobacco zeroes in on these groups because members often have less information about the health dangers of tobacco use, less access to cessation treatment, and fewer social supports to help them quit successfully. The result? They smoke at much higher rates than Kentucky overall, which is neck-and-neck with West Virginia for the highest smoking rate in the nation.”

Missy Spears of Covington speaks at news conference.

The smoking rates for those living at or near the poverty level, racial minorities, LGBTQ, and other populations that face stigma tend to be much higher than for the population as a whole. For example, the smoking rate for the 800,000 Kentuckians on Medicaid is 43.7 percent, compared to Kentucky’s statewide smoking rate of 25.5 percent. One in three Kentucky youth who identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual youth are smokers, twice the rate of their heterosexual counterparts. The national smoking rate is 15.1 percent, but it rises to 23.9 percent for people who identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual; 27.9 percent for those who identify as multiracial, and 26.3 percent for those who live below the federal poverty level.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data also show the disproportionate impact of smoking on persons who are poor, homeless, members of a racial minority, LGBTQ, less educated or who have a mental illness or a substance abuse disorder. (See this website) and this one.

The average Kentucky smoker spends $1,741 each year on cigarettes, according to WalletHub, which calculates that Kentucky smokers lose an additional $3,585 in income annually due to the wage gap between smokers and nonsmokers.

Borden Gerwin, of Covington, is a fourth generation smoker who watched both his paternal grandfather and his father die of tobacco-related disease. On and off Medicaid since 2014, Gerwin decided to quit smoking after his own son was born. His last cigarette was 13 months ago, even though his employer-based insurance didn’t cover his tobacco cessation treatment at that time.

Gerwin joined Beauregard and Kentucky Health Departments Association Director Allison Adams at a news conference Wednesday hosted by the Coalition for a Smoke-Free Tomorrow, which is advocating for the $1 increase.

“Smoking is the cause of so much illness and heartache in Kentucky, but it has far greater consequences for Kentuckians experiencing racism, stigma or poverty,” said Ben Chandler, Chair of the Coalition for a Smoke-Free Tomorrow and president/CEO of the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky. “That’s why more than 150 organizations have joined the Coalition – to urge the legislature to use the most effective tool we have for reducing smoking and the devastation it causes in the Commonwealth.”

Kentucky’s current cigarette tax of 60 cents per pack ranks 43rd in the nation. The national average is $1.72 per pack. Research shows that a significant increase in cigarette taxes is the single most effective measure to reduce smoking, but also has found that such increases only reduce smoking rates and generate other health benefits “if they lead to a noticeable increase in the price of tobacco products.”

The Kentucky House of Representatives included a 50 cent-per-pack increase in the cigarette tax in its budget bill, HB 366, which passed on March 1. The Coalition is urging the Senate to add an additional 50 cents.

“Absent a full dollar increase, we won’t see health benefits from the tax increase,” said Allison Adams, who also is director of the Buffalo Trace District Health Department. “Tobacco companies will undermine the impact of a 50-cent tax hike on the price of a pack of cigarettes by issuing 50-cent coupons. There’ll be no ‘price shock,’ which is what it takes for the smoker to quit. In the end, minority groups and others who still smoke in Kentucky will pay more for their cigarettes when the price eases back up but they won’t get the health benefits of quitting.”

Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky

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