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A burning issue: the proposed 25-cent tax increase on cigarettes stokes a smoking fire.

A pack of cigarettes is placed on the counter of a Little Rock convenience store.

The customer pushes $2.10 back toward the sales clerk.

The buyer palms the cigarettes in his hand and quickly shoves them in a jacket pocket, out of sight.

It's not chic to be a smoker anymore.

It's not cheap, either.

The war against smoking has escalated.

Old Joe, the cartoon camel used in advertisements by RJR Nabisco Inc., recently was condemned by the nation's doctors.

Non-smoking areas in restaurants and other public facilities are the norm rather than the exception.

So much for chic.

But smokers are getting hit in the pocketbook, too. Anti-smoking coalitions in several states are seeking tax increases -- to deter smoking and to produce revenue.

A group called the Coalition for a Healthier Arkansas (CHAR) wants to raise the state cigarette tax by 25 cents per pack. The current state tax is 22 cents per pack.

Add to that a 16-cent federal tax, and Arkansas could be paying 63 cents in taxes each time they purchase a pack of cigarettes.

The 47-cent state tax would equal the highest cigarette excise tax in the country, according to figures provided by The Tobacco Institute. Hawaii also has a 47-cent state cigarette tax.

Thou Shalt Not Smoke?

It's known as a "sin tax."

The health care community and other proponents of the tax increase say it would represent a step toward a smoke-free society. A projected $68 million in annual revenue would be collected and used to fund health and education programs.

The tobacco industry says it is simply another slap at consumers.

What do smokers think?

Some actually support the increase, according to a survey conducted by Opinion Research Associates Inc. of Little Rock.

Others deem the proposal unfair and regressive.

It's a burning issue.

The debate over cigarette tax increases already has been waged in California and Montana. Tax proponents won in California but lost in Montana.

Groups in Arkansas, Massachusetts, Nebraska and Oregon are working to get initiated acts on their states' November general election ballots.

"This is not a typical health issue," says Jacquolyn Duerr, media coordinator for the California Tobacco Education Program at Sacramento, a state agency. "It's a highly politicized issue, one with severe economic consequences for the tobacco industry. Because of that, we've been under enormous amounts of scrutiny and pressure since the vote passed."

Voters in California approved a 25-cent-per-pack tax increase in 1988, bringing the total to 35 cents per pack. That came after two failed attempts to raise the state's tobacco tax through the legislative process.

Sponsors of the tax increase formed the Coalition for a Healthy California, which included many of the same national health organizations that support the Arkansas initiative. In its victorious 1988 campaign, the California coalition claims to have spent less than $2 million, compared with a $22 million war chest for the tobacco industry.

Those figures bring a laugh from Brennan Dawson, a spokeswoman at The Tobacco Institute in Washington. She says the figures are distorted.

"I don't know how they came up with that," she says.

Don't expect that kind of money to be pumped into a smaller state such as Arkansas. Still, CHAR members are bracing for a well-financed media attack from the tobacco industry.

Gathering Signatures

CHAR hopes to raise about $500,000 for the statewide campaign, says coalition member William Jones. First, however, the group must obtain 55,000 signatures of registered voters to get the initiated act on the November general election ballot.

Jones is a Little Rock dermatologist and immediate past president of the Arkansas Medical Society, one of the organizations in the coalition. He studied the tobacco tax campaign in California and has an idea of what to expect from the tobacco industry.

"Our major concern is they will buy the last six to eight weeks of available television and radio time throughout the state," Jones says. "They won't be arguing with people about health issues. They'll argue about the right to choose and the regressiveness of the tax.

"... Their pocketbooks are deeper. They can spend millions and millions of dollars on advertising."

For now, the tobacco industry is watching, Dawson says. There are industry lobbyists in the state, but nothing more.

Campaign assistance from large corporations such as the Philip Morris Cos. and RJR Nabisco is expected. Officials at both tobacco giants direct questions to The Tobacco Institute.

CHAR must have the necessary number of signatures to the secretary of state's office by July 3. If successful, its grass-roots campaign will begin July 4.

Revenues from the tax increase are expected to total about $68 million annually. Last year, gross state cigarette tax collections were about $58 million.

The proposed Cigarette and Tobacco Products Tax Act specifies that the $68 million be used this way:

* $34 million to improve public health care for older and low-income Arkansas.

* $13.6 million for programs benefiting the state's senior citizens through the "Meals On Wheels" program, transportation programs and other services provided by the Area Agencies on Aging.

* $10.2 million for youth-oriented health education programs on drug, alcohol and tobacco use. Studies show that 90 percent of smokers start by age 19.

* $6.8 million to fund programs for abused and neglected children.

* $3.4 million to support disease surveillance and fund medical research into tobacco-related diseases.

Smokers' Rights

According to the state Department of Health's Center For Health Statistics, 26.5 percent of adult Arkansans smoke.

Opinion Research's February poll showed that 63 percent of Arkansas voters favor a 25-cent increase in the cigarette tax. Proponents of the increase claim that a majority of smokers favor the hike.

"Even when we've contacted smokers, they've signed the petition," says Cecil Malone, state director of the American Association of Retired Persons and coalition chairman. "I've asked several I know who smoke, and they've said. 'Yes, if it will prevent younger people from smoking.'"

A large percentage of Californians who smoke favored a higher tax, Duerr says.

Raise the price and persuade teenagers to buy bubble gum rather than cigarettes?

"There has been a clear indication that if you raise the price, it will curtail many from smoking, especially young people," says Joe Painter of Houston, chairman of the American Medical Association.

Painter cites statistics gathered in California since the state's new cigarette tax went into effect in January 1989. In the two years after the tax increase passed, the reduction in the number of smokers more than doubled the national average. The national average was 8 percent. In California, there was a 17 percent reduction.

"If we raise the excise tax and |cigarettes~ cost more, children are less likely to start," Painter says. "That, in my opinion, outweighs the individual rights of the smoker."

The tobacco industry argues that paint.

In previous campaigns, individual rights have been the major issue. During the past three years, tobacco companies have established more than 600 smokers' rights groups across the country.

Delmar Von Wert, who lives near Huntsville, is president of a smokers' rights organization in northwest Arkansas. The group met last week to discuss campaign strategy.

Von Wert, a retired Marine, is 55. He has been smoking since he was 7. He says if he ever saw definitive proof that smoking causes cancer, he would believe all the "squawking" from the medical community.

Would he quit smoking?

"No," he says.

Von Wert and other smokers' rights advocates are not concerned with the health issue.

"We're campaigning against the unfairness of it, the fact that they are singling out one group," Von Wert says. "For some reason, everybody is under the impression that because we smoke, we're second-class, unwanted citizens. But they sure want my tax money. I'm getting tired of that."

Von Wert says if the tax increase is approved, he will buy his cigars and his wife's cigarettes in Missouri where the state tax is a more affordable 13 cents per pack. Yet not all Arkansas smokers have the luxury of being close to the border.

Von Wert says his group does not have the financial backing of major tobacco companies. It has the industry's blessings, though.

"Historically, we've been opposed to raising taxes on our customers," The Tobacco Institute's Dawson says. "Smokers already pay more than non-smokers. They pay sales taxes, Social Security, property -- just like everybody else. Then, they pay extra taxes on cigarettes."

Tax-increase proponents counter that smokers are paying for the privilege to continue smoking.

"The cost of medical care for them has shifted to society, most of whom do not smoke," Jones says. "... The handwriting is on the wall against the tobacco industry. Fifty percent of the population smoked at one time. Now, it's less than 30 percent."

In Arkansas, the battle lines are being drawn.
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Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Webb, Kane
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:May 4, 1992
Words:1467
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