For health’s sake, raise the tobacco tax


The Tribune

Indiana has made strides in reducing the number of people who smoke cigarettes. But we haven’t done nearly enough. It’s time for the Indiana General Assembly and Gov. Eric Holcomb to take strong action to address this smoldering health crisis and raise the state cigarette tax.

The numbers are startling: About 11,000 Hoosiers still die from tobacco-related illnesses every year. Tobacco use costs the state $5.4 billion annually in health care costs and lost productivity, according to the Alliance for a Healthy Indiana. Secondhand smoke — long settled by experts as a hazard to people who don’t smoke — costs the state an additional $2.2 billion.

With all the money Indiana and other states reaped from the $206 billion Master Tobacco Settlement — which marked its 20th anniversary this year — the state should have more to show from the influx of Big Tobacco cash into anti-smoking efforts. And yet, fully 20 percent of Hoosiers still use tobacco, and the number of young people flocking to e-cigarettes has become an epidemic. Indiana now spends a fraction of its tobacco revenue on health programs to fight tobacco use. The result: For every dollar Indiana spends on smoking cessation/prevention programs, the tobacco industry spends $14 to peddle its products, according to the Campaign for Tobacco Free-Kids.

In Jackson County, there are 1.2 tobacco outlets per 1,000 people

All of these grim numbers are why the Alliance for a Healthy Indiana, a group including respected health-care entities, businesses and experts from the Richard M. Fairbanks School of Public Health at Indiana University, is calling for an increase of $2 in Indiana’s tobacco tax.

The legislature and Gov. Holcomb should make this a priority for the 2019 session, which begins in just over two weeks.

The legislature has been down this road before. In 2018, in increase was stripped out of a bill in the House. It has died in other past sessions. Indiana’s anti-tax sentiment has for generations allowed the state to hold the line on government spending. That’s laudable when it comes to taxing our property or our income or the items we buy.

This is different.

By almost every measure, Indiana lags in national health rankings. Its obesity rate is well above the national average. Its infant mortality rate is near the bottom. Indiana ranks next to last in public health funding, meaning the state invests less in helping people stay healthy than almost everyone else.

An increase of $2 in the cigarette tax — the rate is now 99.5 cents, one of the lowest in the country — would have key impacts. First, making tobacco more expensive will discourage some people from buying it. The Alliance for a Healthy Indiana estimates an increase of $2 in the price of a pack of cigarettes would help 70,000 adults quit smoking and prevent 58,000 young people from starting. Second, it would generate — in its first year, at least — an estimated $358 million in revenue that could be funneled into a wealth of pressing public health issues: tobacco use, the opioid epidemic, infant mortality and others.

Raising the cigarette tax is an investment in business, in public health policy and — most of all — in Hoosiers’ health. We call on our state lawmakers to stand behind this proposal.

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