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Poll: Idahoans favor sin tax hike

BOISE – Idahoans overwhelmingly support raising state taxes on cigarettes and alcohol to address the state’s budget deficit, even as they oppose other tax hikes and spending cuts, according to a new statewide poll.

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.

“This will be a huge win for Idaho’s public health,” said Dr. Ted Epperly, a family physician from Boise.

Idaho’s cigarette tax 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 annually. “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 include the American Cancer Society and the Idaho Medical Association, project that a $1.50-per-pack increase in Idaho’s cigarette tax 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,” Lake said Thursday. “So when they approached me this year, I said yes, we’d hear the bill.”

Lake said he’s unsure about the health coalition’s proposal for a $1.50-per-pack increase, however. “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 of respondents support 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’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.”

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.