Harold Ritchie had unfinished business when he climbed into his 2001 Nissan truck in April and drove from Bogalusa to Baton Rouge to begin this year’s legislative session.
It’s nearly a two-hour drive, and it gave Ritchie plenty of time to think. For the previous five years, the Democratic state representative had been on a quest to raise the state’s cigarette tax.
He had failed each year. The best he could do was to get the Legislature one year to renew 4 cents of the state’s 36-cent tax, which is the third lowest in the country.
This time, however, he had a factor in his favor: Legislators would be looking to raise revenue to help close a $1.6 billion budget deficit.
“This was the year to get it done,” Ritchie said he thought during the drive to Baton Rouge in April. “You could hear the talk: ‘We need the money.’ Everyone knows that a cigarette tax could help fill it up. This was the opportunity.”
Ritchie also reflected that this would be his last shot. Term limits will force him out of office once the Legislature adjourns this year.
So he introduced an audacious proposal to boost Louisiana’s cigarette tax by $1.18. That rate would match the national average of $1.54 per pack and help plug the budget shortfall by raising $240 million next year.
Besides creating a windfall, it would produce huge other benefits. The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids said the higher tax would cause 43,400 people in Louisiana to stop smoking and would keep 34,600 youths younger than 18 from ever starting. This would prevent 22,300 premature deaths and save the state uncounted millions of dollars in health care costs.
More than halfway through the two-month legislative session, a cigarette tax increase appears likely. But Ritchie’s colleagues, heeding the concerns of Big Tobacco and its convenience-store allies, have downsized his plan to a 32-cent increase.
Ritchie, a laid-back man, is taking the news philosophically.
“I won’t be satisfied with 32 cents, but I’ll feel good if it goes through,” he said.
Ritchie spoke while sitting on a second-floor balcony outside his apartment at the Pentagon Barracks, next to the Capitol. He wore blue jeans, a T-shirt and sandals, and he had a cup of coffee in one hand, a cigarette in the other.
Yes, the legislator who every year leads a quixotic mission for higher cigarette taxes is a smoker. Ritchie has tried to quit numerous times. He has never stopped for more than two weeks.
There’s another twist to his quest. Ritchie is an undertaker. He and two brothers own the Poole-Ritchie Funeral Home in Bogalusa. Friends call him “Digger.” Ritchie’s colleagues tease him by saying he’s pushing a cause that will keep his customers away.
They also tease him for ducking out of legislative committee meetings for cigarette breaks.
But there was little lighthearted banter on display April 27 when the House Ways and Means Committee took up Ritchie’s House Bill 119, and Stephen Kantrow took a seat at the witness table.
Kantrow told the committee that he is an associate professor at LSU’s Health Sciences Center in New Orleans, where he specializes in lung-related diseases, including treating patients as they lie dying. He said he was taking a day of unpaid leave and then quietly and matter-of-factly laid out the facts on smoking.
“It’s been one of the tragic observations of my career that many smokers, if not most smokers, as they are dying of their diseases feel that they are to blame themselves for their death,” Kantrow said. “It is not them who are to blame. Seventy percent of people who smoke in the United States want to quit. When they try to quit, about 10 percent are successful. It’s very, very difficult to escape this addiction. Eighty percent of people who begin the addiction are children before the age of 18. ... Cigarette smoking in this sense is a childhood addiction that they spend the rest of their lives struggling to break.”
Ritchie leaned forward in his seat as the doctor outlined the benefits of quitting.
“If you’re a cigarette smoker and you are 30 years old and you stop, you avoid 97 percent of the consequences of smoking,” Kantrow said. “If you’re 40 and stop, you avoid 90 percent of the consequences. If you’re 50 and you stop, you can avoid 50 percent of the consequences.”
Ritchie had a question.
“You left out the number age 65,” he said. “I’m 65 years old. I’ve been smoking for 50 years now. What’s my prognosis?”
“If we can help you stop smoking today, then in the next couple of days, your risk of heart attack is going to start going down,” Kantrow replied. “By (two years), you’ll be close to not having really smoked at all in terms of your risk of cardiovascular disease. That is the most dramatic and early improvement when you stop smoking.”
Then Kantrow delivered the bad news.
“Your risk of getting lung cancer … is exceptionally high as a smoker. COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) actually does get worse as you age once you have it because it doesn’t improve in the lungs as you age.”
“I don’t have a very good outlook right there,” Ritchie responded. “There’s no cure for COPD or emphysema.”
“So if I could come to your house and hug you for a month and keep you from cigarettes, then that would be the best thing,” Kantrow said.
Ritchie mused for a moment about when he began smoking.
“We were sitting there watching the Marlboro Man ride off into the sunset,” he said.
Ritchie was 15 years old and began by stealing a cigarette here and there from his father, aunt and uncle. He would run into the woods behind his house to light up.
“I just wanted to be cool like everyone else,” he recalled during the interview. “Back then, kids just smoked. We were just doing what other folks were doing.”
Within a year or two, Ritchie would go to a local store and ask to buy a pack of smokes. It was for his father, he would tell the clerk. A pack cost 30 cents. Of that, 8 cents was the state tax.
Ritchie’s grandfather died of smoking-related diseases. Later, his father Claude had a heart attack in his mid-40s and stopped smoking.
Afterward, Claude’s nose was extremely sensitive to cigarette smoke.
“Son, you been smoking?” he’d ask his son.
“Yes, Dad,” Harold Ritchie would reply.
“You don’t need to be smoking,” his father would admonish him. “I don’t want you to smoke.”
“OK,” his son would say. He kept smoking.
Claude Ritchie died of a heart attack when he was 53.
By then, Harold Ritchie had dropped out of college and gone to Houston to study embalming. In 1980, when he was 30, he and his two brothers bought what is now the Poole-Ritchie Funeral Home. He and his wife, Patsy, began raising two boys and a girl.
In 1990, Ritchie failed a stress test. An angioplasty opened two of his arteries that were obstructed at least in part by his smoking. He needed another angioplasty in 1995. Each time, the doctor told him to quit.
“I haven’t been able to,” Ritchie said, lighting another Marlboro outside his Pentagon Barracks apartment. “The addictive nature of nicotine is something else.”
Ritchie was elected to the state House in 2003. In 2009, he began championing a higher cigarette tax.
“I guess it’s my family history and being in the funeral home business and seeing friends who smoked die at a young age,” he said, adding that he has no score to settle with the tobacco companies. “I can’t hurt them. They make billions of dollars. I can only try to change the price so young people won’t start smoking and smokers will think about quitting.”
Including his own children.
“I told them they don’t need to be smoking,” Ritchie said. One listened to him while the other two didn’t — “just like I didn’t listen to my daddy.” (His wife quit smoking several years ago.)
On April 27, even before the public testimony began, the Ways and Means Committee chopped Ritchie’s proposed $1.18 increase to 32 cents. The new 68-cent tax rate would match Mississippi’s, lawmakers noted. (Mississippi has the 37th-lowest cigarette tax nationally.)
The bill passed the state House on May 7 by a 78-27 vote. It was eight more than the 70 votes needed. Republicans cast 24 of the 27 “no” votes. The measure still needs the approval of the Senate and of Gov. Bobby Jindal, who opposes all tax increases unless they are offset by other tax decreases.
Fred Hoyt, a former senator and convenience-store owner, told members of the Senate Finance Committee last week that he and other store owners could live with a 32-cent increase.
Kantrow is a 52-year-old New Orleans native who has been at LSU since 1996. In a telephone interview, he lamented that lawmakers did not support the $1.18 increase.
“The tax he proposed could do more good than I’ll do my entire life in terms of saving lives and preventing disease,” he said. “It’s a lost opportunity to help a guy who will probably die from tobacco. He’s the right guy to bring all that forward. His risk of getting lung cancer is 2,000 percent higher than a nonsmoker.”
Ritchie notes that he now feels shortness of breath as he climbs the steps to his second-floor apartment.
He snuffed out a cigarette to walk into the kitchen and dump that day’s pills into his hand. The five pills combat high cholesterol, high blood pressure and coronary artery disease. Ritchie swallowed them all with a gulp of water. He then took two breaths with an inhaler that relaxes his lung muscles.
Over the years, Ritchie has tried to break his addiction every which way. He has worn the patch, chewed nicotine gum, taken prescription pills and even undergone hypnosis.
After this legislative session ends and Ritchie drives back to Bogalusa, he’ll try an acupuncture session that a friend has recommended.
But Ritchie knows the fate that ultimately awaits him.
“When I ride off into the sunset, it will probably be on a little scooter with an oxygen tank between my legs,” he said.
Ritchie said he’s at peace because of his Christian faith. “When I die, I’ll be in a place where I won’t need a cigarette,” he said.
He paused and added, “Having been in the funeral business all these years, I know it’s what happens to all of us, whether we smoke or not.”
Follow Tyler Bridges on Twitter, @TegBridges. For more coverage of the State Capitol, follow Louisiana Politics at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/.