The cigarette tax and convenience stores

The state’s convenience stores, buoyed by the likely passage of a bill allowing Sunday alcohol sales, appear to be winners again on another legislative front.

The tax overhaul package being taken up in these final days of the Legislature does not contain an increase in the state’s levy on cigarettes. Its absence comes despite being proposed by an independent tax commission, support from a coalition of health organizations, and substantial backing by Georgians.

The tobacco tax increase has been opposed by the Georgia Association of Convenience Stores, which argues a hike would hurt stores’ revenues from a top-selling product.

The Associated Press’s Shannon McCaffrey wrote recently of that association’s lobbying of lawmakers on the Sunday sales bill, citing in particular the association’s longtime lobbyist dishing out food for lawmakers.

The lobbyist, Jim Tudor, often clad in apron, and the convenience stores group have spent more than $1,500 this legislative session feeding lawmakers, including in the House anteroom where other lobbyists aren’t allowed, the AP reported.

Opponents of a tax increase center much of their arguments on convenience stores. They say stores’ business would flag if Georgia increased its tax, which at 37 cents per pack is currently among the lowest in the country.

Gov. Nathan Deal  told Morris News Service in January that raising the tax could harm  convenience stores near the borders of states that would have lower levies on cigarettes — such as Alabama, at 42.5 cents per pack.

But June Deen, state director of the American Lung Association, a proponent of a higher cigarette tax, cited a University of Illinois at Chicago study that found that higher cigarette taxes and stronger smoke-free laws have no effect on the number of convenience stores, nor a negative economic impact on the stores.

Deen said Wednesday that she is disappointed in the likely outcome of the cigarette tax debate. “We feel we have made a good case’’ for a tobacco tax hike, she said.  “We have the lowest tax of any state around us.’’

“It’s an important health issue that costs people’s lives and money,’’ Deen added. “We know the state needs revenue badly.’’

A $1 increase in the tax is projected to raise $350 million in revenues for the state in a tight budget year – one where teachers and state employees face 20 percent increases in their health insurance premiums. Proponents say the tax hike would also reduce smoking and the costs of smoking-related illnesses.

“We certainly have some rather powerful opponents,’’ Deen added.

Convenience stores and tobacco interests have worked together nationally against anti-smoking initiatives, according to ‘’Deadly Spin,’’ a new book by Wendell Potter, a former health insurance executive.

Tudor, also the president of the Georgia Association of Convenience Stores, told Georgia Health News that the group has always opposed a tax ‘’that makes us uncompetitive with other states.’’

Tobacco represents  40 percent of convenience stores sales, Tudor said. “We border five states,’’ he says. “We have a price advantage on all those states.’’  He disputes the conclusions of the convenience store study cited by Deen.

Tudor said he has worked at the Capitol for 25 years. “I don’t lobby in the anteroom,’’ he said. “I am very respectful of the House.’’

Deen said of the Convenience Stores’ food deliveries in the House anteroom, “That friend-making has gone on for many years.’’

Earlier this year, the Georgia tax reform commission recommended hiking the cigarette tax to 68 cents per pack.

Meanwhile, many health groups, including the American Cancer Society, have called for a $1 increase, bringing Georgia toward the national average of $1.45 per pack.

Deen has noted that Florida raised its cigarette tax by $1 in 2009, and the state’s revenue surged.

A 2010 poll of 500 likely voters in Georgia found 73 percent support the $1 per pack increase.