Friday, February 27, 2009

Tobacco taxes face 40% hike

HONOLULU -- It’s not a good time to be a smoker.

State lawmakers are scrounging about in a tough budget year, looking for spare cash that will raise the fewest hackles possible.

They’ve lighted upon tobacco as the fattest bad boy in town and are contemplating up to 40 percent tax increases.

The anti-smoking attitude was exemplified in a proclamation declaring Feb. 27 as “Kick Butts Day” read by Lt. Gov. James “Duke” Aiona earlier today in front of a hundred or so screaming young people. The red-T-shirt-clad audience was a coalition from Hawaii Real, and they were sending their message loud and clear.

"We see the new smokeless alternatives as an attempt to create a new generation of tobacco users," Aiona said in a statement. "But I am very proud that more adults and teens are making the right decision not to smoke."

This is one cause that state lawmakers seem to agree with the administration on, at least in a year when tax pickings are slim. Both the House and the Senate have bills hiking taxes on tobacco products.

The House bill, HB 1175, would increase the per-cigarette tax from 10 cents to 14 cents.

The Senate bill, SB 38, raises the tax on other tobacco products from 40 percent of the wholesale price to 60 percent. SB 38 unanimously cleared the Senate Health Committee and is scheduled to be heard by the Senate Ways and Means Committee on Monday.

Advocates note that increasing tobacco taxes and using the money to educate youth on the dangers of smoking has dramatically cut teens’ smoking.

Fewer than 10 percent of the high school students say they have smoked at least once in the past 30 days, compared to almost 25 percent in 2000. But smokeless tobacco use has increased during the same period, said Trisha Nakamura, policy and advocacy director for the Coalition for a Tobacco-Free Hawaii.

“A tax increase will not only bring revenue into our State but it will reduce youth tobacco use,” Nakamura said.

Not everyone thinks tobacco users should be targeted for tax increases, however.

“I'm opposed to this hate and this madness. Would you please leave our people that smoke alone?” said Michael Zehner.