Groups renew push to hike cigarette tax

Raising taxes is, at best, a tough sell in the current political climate.

Several health organizations, though, hope that Georgia legislators can make at least one exception – and boost the state tax on cigarettes.

The groups are urging lawmakers to raise the current state tax on a pack of cigarettes by $1, from the current levy of 37 cents, which is among the lowest in the nation. Proponents say the increase would reduce smoking in the state – and related health spending – while raising an estimated $350 million in revenue for Georgia.

The advocacy organizations include the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association and the American Lung Association. They are joined by the Georgia Public Health Association, AARP, the Georgia Association of Educators, consumer group Georgians for a Healthy Future, and the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, an education and research organization. Representatives from the groups met with the media Thursday.

Their “Bump It Up a Buck’’ campaign renews the effort that for four years has been stymied in the Georgia General Assembly. And new Gov. Nathan Deal says he opposes any tax increases.

Deal told Morris News Service in January that raising the tax could hurt convenience stores near the borders of states that would have lower levies on cigarettes (such as Alabama, at 42.5 cents per pack). Deal said in the interview that he would sign a cigarette tax hike “if the Legislature told me it was a last resort, but I would have very serious discussions with everybody before it got to that stage.”

At 37 cents, Georgia currently has the third-lowest tax in the country, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. Meanwhile, the anti-smoking coalition says health spending in Georgia directly caused by tobacco use exceeds $2 billion annually. In Georgia’s Medicaid program alone, smoking-caused spending amounts to $537 million a year, the groups say.

Despite past legislative failures, Eric Bailey of the Cancer Society said that he is ‘’cautiously optimistic’’ based on the Georgia tax reform commission’s recommendation to hike the cigarette tax to 68 cents per pack.

“A dollar [increase] would have a bigger impact,’’ Bailey said. “We would move close to the national average’’ of $1.45 per pack, he said.

June Deen, of the American Lung Association in Georgia, noted that Florida raised its cigarette tax by $1 in 2009, and that the state’s revenue surged.

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

“We know it’s a popular issue,’’ Deen said, adding, “We know we have to work very hard to push this issue forward.’’