BOISE - Idahoans overwhelmingly support raising state taxes on cigarettes and alcohol to address the state’s budget deficit, according to a new statewide poll, even as they oppose other tax hikes and spending cuts.
The poll, conducted by Moore Information, was released Thursday by a coalition of health groups that launched a push for a big hike in Idaho’s 57-cent-per-pack cigarette tax in the coming year.
“This will be a huge win for Idaho’s public health,” said Dr. Ted Epperly, a family physician from Boise.
Idaho’s cigarette tax, at 57 cents per pack, is the lowest among all surrounding states and ranks 42nd in the nation; the national average is $1.45 a pack, and Washington’s tax is more than $3 per pack.
Epperly said smoking is the No. 1 most preventable cause of death in the United States, yet 5,000 Idaho kids try their first cigarette each year and 1,500 Idahoans die from smoking each year. “By raising the state’s tobacco tax, Idaho will reduce smoking … especially among kids,” Epperly said. “The science could not be more clear.”
That’s not all - the groups in the coalition, which range from the American Cancer Society to the Idaho Medical Association, project that a $1.50 increase in Idaho’s cigarette tax also would bring in an additional $52.3 million to the state’s treasury, even after accounting for the drop in cigarette sales it’d bring about.
That money, Epperly said, could help shore up Medicaid, “a program that is in crisis at this time.” Epperly said the state also would see reduced health care costs as the number of smokers drops - an estimated $8 million in savings just in the first five years.
Idaho House Tax Chairman Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, said he supports the concept and may co-sponsor the legislation. “They wanted to bring a bill to raise cigarette taxes last year and I wouldn’t let them, told them no, that last year was all about reducing the base budget, because we had to do that,” Lake said Thursday. “So when they approached me this year, I said yes, we’d hear the bill.”
Lake said he’s not sure about the health coalition’s proposal for a $1.50 per pack increase, however. “I’m not sure that that amount will fly. But I think that we will have a bill that will increase cigarette taxes, yes. Whether it’s a dollar and a half or a dollar or some other figure I don’t know.”
The poll, which queried 500 Idaho voters Oct. 17-18 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent, found 73 percent support for a $1.50 per pack increase in the cigarette tax to preserve Medicaid funding and fund tobacco-cessation and youth prevention programs.
Lake said he agrees with the poll results. “I think people do support it,” he said. But he said he’s reluctant to rely on a cigarette tax increase as a “revenue enhancer.” Instead, he said, it’s warranted on public health grounds. “I’ve seen the figures on what they think the reduction in teenage smoking would be, and I think that alone makes the project worthwhile,” Lake said.
Other information in the poll results, which was funded by the American Cancer Society, Cancer Action Network, American Heart Association, American Lung Association of Idaho, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, included this finding: 47 percent of Idahoans say the state is generally headed in the right direction, while 40 percent think Idaho’s on the wrong track. Pollster Bob Moore called that a “narrowly optimistic” voter mood.
While really big numbers - 71 percent each - favored increasing taxes on alcohol and tobacco to address Idaho’s budget deficit, respondents strongly opposed raising Idaho’s sales tax, income tax or gas tax to deal with the state’s budget crunch. And by even bigger numbers, they opposed reducing funding for roads, health care or education.
The poll found that 82 percent opposed cutting education funding, including 69 percent who were “strongly” opposed.