Fight to increase cigarette tax kicks off


The campaign to increase cigarette taxes by $1 a pack began Tuesday in hopes of changing lawmakers' minds about raising taxes during the 2009 session. Legislative leaders have said they'll oppose any tax increases this year. The state faces a $2 billion to $2.5 billion revenue shortfall, but House and Senate leaders say they want to cut spending rather than raise taxes. Supporters of a bill prefiled Tuesday to raise cigarette taxes say Georgians are on their side. Scott Mathews, of the American Cancer Society, said a poll supporters paid for last year showed 75 percent of Georgians back increasing the state cigarette tax from 37 cents per pack to $1.37 per pack. He said 65 percent of respondents said they'd be more likely to vote for someone who supported the increase. However, similar legislation to raise cigarette taxes went nowhere last year. When asked what the difference would be this time around, the bill's sponsor, Rep. Ron Stephens (R-Savannah), said, "It's not an election year." Traditionally, lawmakers won't vote for a tax tag cloud
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hike in an election year. All 236 members of the General Assembly were up for election in 2008. Supporters say a $1 per pack increase would raise about $350 million a year. Stephens said the state spends more than $500 million a year treating Georgians with smoking-related illnesses. However, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, the Senate's president, called Stephens' projections of what the increase would raise a "pipe dream." Cagle said the last time the state increased cigarette taxes, in 2003, the increase didn't bring in what officials expected. Cagle opposed the 2003 tax hike, and he opposes any increases this year. The Georgia Alliance for Tobacco Prevention said cigarette tax revenue increased from $76.5 million in 2002 to $226 million three years later. In fiscal 2008, it raised $240 million, according to Department of Revenue figures. In 2003, state officials estimated the increase would generate an extra $180 million a year. What was raised in 2008 nearly matches that projection. However, supporters of the tax increase also hope it will lead to reduced cigarette smoking because the cost would become prohibitive for some Georgians. If that happens, tax revenue eventually would drop. The average state cigarette tax nationally is $1.19 per pack. At 37 cents per pack, Georgia's tax ranks 43rd in the country, according to the Georgia Alliance for Tobacco Prevention. The coalition pushing the increase includes the American Cancer Society, American Cancer Action Network, the American Lung Association, the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, the Medical Association of Georgia and other health care groups.