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Anti-smoking groups vow to charge ahead on tobacco tax

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A coalition of Idaho health groups led by the American Cancer Society are vowing once again to persuade state lawmakers to raise the tax on cigarettes and other tobacco products.

A bid to add another $1.25 in taxes to the price of cigarettes failed to gain any momentum in the 2011 Legislature, and supporters acknowledge winning broad support for a tax hike in the upcoming session poses another significant challenge considering the state’s revenue picture has brightened.

Like last year, the groups have won the backing of a key lawmaker, Rep. Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, and chairman of the House Revenue and Taxation Committee.

At 57 cents per pack, Idaho ties for the eighth-lowest tobacco tax among states, and Lake says the Legislature may want to keep it that way given the Republican majority’s disdain for new taxes of any kind.

“Without needing the revenue, it makes it that much more difficult to pass,” Lake told the Idaho Business Review in a story published last week. “We have a substantial group of people (in the Legislature) that are ‘no tax increase’ and they perceive it as being a tax increase.”

Advocates estimate the $1.25 per pack increase could raise $50 million for the state to help fund smoking cessation, education and other health services tied to smoking.

The American Cancer Society is again leading the charge to raise taxes on cigarettes and other tobacco products. Heidi Low, the group’s state lobbyist, said the tax is one of her highest priorities for the next legislative session and she cites polls taken last year showing overwhelming public support for a tax as high as $1.50 per pack.

“It has consistently been something that’s been supported by the public and other health-related organizations,” Low said. “Everyone is eager to move forward with something.”

The increase also has the backing of two dozen other Idaho organizations, including the Idaho Medical Association and Idaho Association of Counties.

Idaho now ranks 34th in funding programs to prevent kids from smoking and help smokers quit, according to a report released by the ACS CAN and other public health groups that oppose smoking.

Despite support from a 31-member coalition and a budget shortfall, Republicans declined to tap smokers and tobacco users for more money. Instead, lawmakers cut $35 million from Medicaid and another $62 million from public education to balance the budget.

Opposition this year will also come from tobacco vendors, including owners of convenience stores. During a meeting earlier this year, convenience store owners collected 25,000 signatures from customers opposed to paying any more for smokes.

“They are pretty strongly opposed to the tax,” said Suzi Budge, state executive director for the National Federation of Independent Businesses. “We tried to convey to them the concerns from the people we do business with every day.”