Healthcare advocates back bill to increase taxes on cigarettes _lowres

Advocate Photo by MARK BALLARD -- State Rep. Harold Ritchie, D-Bogalusa, appeared Tuesday a press conference of five health advocacy groups that threw their support behind his House Bill 119 to raise the tax on cigarettes by $1.18 per pack. The current tax in Louisiana is 36 cents. The American Heart Association, American Cancer Society, American Lung Association, Campaign for Tobacco Free-Kids and the Louisiana Campaign for Tobacco Free-Living backed the measure. About a dozen bills have been filed for the Louisiana Legislature to consider when the annual session begins Monday.

A coalition of health advocacy groups threw their support Tuesday behind a legislative effort to raise the tax on cigarettes by $1.18 per pack.

State Rep. Harold Ritchie, a smoker who has tried repeatedly over the years to increase the taxes, says this year’s version has a better chance because Gov. Bobby Jindal has indicated he is OK with some form of a cigarette tax hike, provided legislators make related cuts in spending. The proposal Jindal has suggested would link a much smaller tobacco tax increase to higher education.

About a dozen bills seek to increase tobacco taxes, albeit to different levels. Of the measures filed, Ritchie’s would raise the tax the most.

The Louisiana Legislature convenes Monday at noon.

Ritchie says his House Bill 119 would bring Louisiana in line with the current national average of $1.54 per pack. Louisiana, which currently has the second lowest tobacco tax in the nation, collects 36 cents on every pack of cigarettes sold.

The Bogalusa Democrat said he hasn’t come up with a plan to cut spending elsewhere in the budget to offset the $240 million in revenues his proposed increase is expected to raise in the fiscal year that begins July 1. But Richey says he’s looking at alternatives.

“This is not a tax issue, as some would say,” Ritchie said. “This is a public health issue.”

He remembered the smoking-related deaths of his father and grandfather and said he worried about his grandchildren – Hudson, 5, and Chandler, 2 – who were playing in the back of the room at the press conference. “I had babysitting duty today,” he said.

Should the tax pass, Ritchie said he hoped the increased price would entice him stop a habit he picked up about a half century ago. On the other hand, Ritchie said he thought he would quit when the price got over a dollar a pack back in the early 1980s, and now it’s over $5.

“I would only hope that I will quit. But I know that a number of kids won’t take up the habit,” Ritchie said, because they won’t be able to afford it.

About 98,000 Louisiana youth under the age of 18 likely will die prematurely from smoking, he said.

The American Heart Association, American Cancer Society, American Lung Association, Campaign for Tobacco Free-Kids and the Louisiana Campaign for Tobacco Free-Living held the press conference to show their support for Ritchie’s bill.

The five groups formed “Invest in a Healthy Louisiana” campaign, which aims to reduce smoking by raising the tax, and therefore, the price of cigarettes, said Stasha Rhodes, of the American Heart Association.

The tax increase would prompt 43,400 current adult smokers to quit and 17.9 percent fewer youngsters would pick up the habit, according to estimates compiled by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network.

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