Evidence higher taxes saves lives

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, July 17, 2002

If Alabama lawmakers wonder what effect raising cigarette taxes would have on teenage smokers, they should look at the results of the state Department of Education's just released survey of high school students. It found that from 1999 to 2001, the percentage of high-schoolers who smoke fell from 36.6 percent to 23.7 percent a dramatic decrease that coincides with sharply higher cigarette prices.

Of course, the higher prices came courtesy of the national tobacco settlement, in which tobacco companies increased the cost of their products to cover the multibillion pay-outs to states. Meanwhile, Alabama's tobacco taxes remain ridiculously low. Only seven states impose a lower tax on cigarettes than

Alabama's 16.5 cents per pack less than half the national average of 42 cents.

What it means is that the state is missing a great opportunity to cut more into teen smoking and raise additional revenue for the state for health programs, such as anti-smoking initiatives. Doubling the tax which would still leave it below the national

average would generate about $60 million a year.

Alabama is doing a pitiful job funding programs designed to reduce teen smoking. Despite the $97 million the state received last year from the tobacco settlement, only $2.2 million went into anti-smoking program this year. That comes out to about 50 cents per person a piddling amount compared to the $7.38 neighboring Mississippi spends. It's also a paltry amount measured against the health toll caused by smoking each year estimated at $1.17 billion in 1998, or $269 per resident.

But this is more about health than dollars. Strong anti-smoking programs would reduce teen smoking and the health woes sure to follow. So, too, would higher tobacco taxes by themselves, since teen smoking decreases when tobacco prices increase.

However, to raise tobacco taxes, lawmakers must stand up to the powerful tobacco industry, something the Legislature hasn't had the courage to do in the past. Not only has it failed to raise tobacco taxes despite strong pleas from health and children advocates, the Legislature has also refused to pass laws regulating smoking in restaurants and public places, necessary to protect nonsmokers from secondhand smoke.

With more evidence that higher tobacco taxes can save lives, legislators are running out of excuses for not acting.

-- The Birmingham News