Tobacco tax backers get boost from report

Georgia health advocates are hoping a new report from the U.S. Surgeon General on youth tobacco use can kick-start their campaign to boost the state tax on cigarettes.

The report, released this week, noted that while youth smoking dropped dramatically from 1997 to 2004, that decline has leveled off since. Nearly one in four high school seniors and one in three young adults under age 26 smoke, the report said.

More high school students are using smokeless tobacco, the Surgeon General’s report added.

“The numbers are really shocking,” Surgeon General Regina Benjamin said in an interview with USA Today.

“It’s a problem we have to solve,” Dr. Benjamin said, calling tobacco use among the young a “pediatric epidemic” in need of greater public action.

She said adolescents, because their bodies are developing, are more susceptible than adults to nicotine’s addictiveness and tobacco’s damage to hearts and lungs.

In Georgia, health advocates are again backing an additional tax of $1 per pack of cigarettes to reduce smoking and improve health. Georgia’s current tax of 37 cents per pack is among the lowest in the nation.

The Bump It Up a Buck coalition notes that in Georgia, 95,900 high school students smoke and 22 million packs of cigarettes are bought or smoked by kids each year.

The coalition plans to hold an Atlanta celebration of national Kick Butts Day on Wednesday, March 21 at the state Capitol to highlight the dangers of teen smoking.

Last year, a proposed levy of an additional dollar per pack died at the Legislature after opposition by the Georgia Association of Convenience Stores. Republicans, who control the General Assembly, have said it’s unlikely to pass this year as well, despite widespread support in polls.

A 2010 poll of 500 likely voters in Georgia found more than 70 percent support the $1 per pack increase.

Tobacco products are among the most heavily marketed consumer goods in the United States, with nearly $10 billion spent on mar­keting cigarettes each year, the Surgeon General’s report says.

A landmark 1964 report by the Surgeon General led to increasingly intense government efforts to discourage tobacco use, including federal warning labels on products, municipal bans on smoking in public places, increased tobacco taxes and anti-tobacco advertising. Tobacco use is down overall since the 1960s, but it remains the single most preventable cause of disease, disability and death in the U.S.

Danny McGoldrick of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, in the USA Today article, noted the industry’s partnerships with convenience stores to advertise and display tobacco products. He also cited the industry’s successful opposition to state tobacco tax increases.

Companies target teens with flavored cigarettes and other tobacco products, said June Deen, state director of the American Lung Association, on Friday. A higher price can deter youth from starting the habit, she said. “People rarely start smoking after age 25,’’ Deen said.

Georgia currently has the 48th-lowest per-pack tax in the nation, at 37 cents. The national average is $1.46.

Deen acknowledged that there’s not much talk at the General Assembly about raising the tax, and political analysts have noted strong opposition to tax increases in general among Georgia legislators. But Deen said momentum for a higher levy could surge if the state experiences a significant revenue shortfall.

“If we need revenue bad enough, it becomes more attractive,’’ she said.

Raising a state tobacco tax often takes years, Deen said. “We need to be serious about improving tobacco prevention programs and raising the cost of cigarettes to stop kids from smoking.’’

The tobacco industry spends approximately $348.7 million on marketing in Georgia each year, the health advocates say. That’s about the same amount of new state revenue that a dollar per pack would generate each year, according to the Bump It Up a Buck coalition.

Its members include the American Cancer Society, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, the American Heart Association, the American Lung Association, the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, the Georgia Society of Clinical Oncology and Georgians for a Healthy Future.

Here’s a link to the Surgeon General’s report.