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Health groups aim to boost Idaho cigarette tax

A coalition of health groups wants Idaho to join states that have boosted taxes on cigarettes, arguing it will help curb smoking, especially among kids.

They've won support of Rep. Dennis Lake, the Republican who heads the House Revenue and Taxation Committee.

After the conservative turn of the Idaho Legislature during the Nov. 2 election, however, proposals to hike taxes — regardless of which product is targeted — face a tough fight in the 2011 session.

American Heart Association lobbyist Adrean Casper says raising Idaho's 57-cent-per-pack cigarette tax just 10 percent would cut youth smoking by about 6.5 percent.

"From our perspective, it's the No. 1 leading cause of preventative death in Idaho," Casper said. "If you want youth to stop smoking, you raise the price. It's a pretty simple model."

Others pushing the plan include state chapters of the American Cancer Society and the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. Casper says details, including how much her group would like to see taxes hiked, are due out later this year.

Idaho's tax on cigarettes ranks 42nd nationally, tied with tobacco-producing South Carolina. The state raises about $45 million annually from its cigarette tax, and another $8.5 million from taxes on other tobacco products, according to the 2009 annual Idaho State Tax Commission report.

Washington state just boosted its tax by a $1 to just over $3, pushing cigarettes there to about $8 a pack. Utah lifted its tax to $1.70. More than a dozen states have lifted their taxes on cigarettes over two years, for health reasons and to lift revenue during the economic downturn.

With Idaho facing a projected 2012 budget deficit of up to $350 million, depending on how the economy fares next fiscal year, higher tobacco taxes could help close the gap.

But the election last week that left just 13 Democratic representatives in Idaho's state House and seven in the Senate installed an even-more conservative GOP majority in both chambers. That doesn't bode well for higher taxes, even for what Casper's group sees as a good cause.

House Speaker Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, said he's torn.

"I don't like to go after just specific products and people," Denney said. "However, I don't mind the idea of trying to reduce smoking. If it's a price thing, maybe that's something I could support sometime down the road. I don't like the idea of it being used as a revenue source for the general fund."

Lake, the tax panel's leader, said he's on board, with this caveat: Raising more revenue should only be a side benefit, with the primary focus on discouraging people, especially youngsters, from picking up the habit.

"I want it to be done for public health reasons, not as a revenue enhancer," Lake said.

Back in 2009, a drive to raise Idaho's beer and wine taxes to fund substance abuse treatment failed in Lake's committee. But Casper said this push to target cigarettes can't be compared to that effort, because the connection between smoking and health problems is more solidly documented than the link between beer or wine and drug abuse.

She points to statistics, from the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, that indicate smoking costs Idaho residents about $319 million annually, including $83 million for state-and-federal funded Medicaid programs. Tom Shanahan, a spokesman for the state Department of Health and Welfare, couldn't immediately be reached for comment on the figure.

Pam Eaton, a lobbyist for convenience stores that would likely be skeptical of a tobacco-tax hike, didn't immediately return a phone call seeking comment.

Wayne Hoffman, who heads up the free-market advocacy group Idaho Freedom Foundation, contends boosting tobacco taxes will hurt retailers and could push consumers to buy cigarettes illegally. While some may curb their smoking or not start, he said others will simply buy their cigarettes elsewhere.

"It kills businesses," Hoffman said, adding his group would fight a tax hike proposal next session.