Georgia wins with tobacco tax hike

Most Georgians understand the difficult decisions that are being made about our state's budget as a result of severely declining revenues.

We understand there will be furloughs and that state services will be cut.

What we don't understand is why we aren't making some logical decisions to improve the situation.

It makes sense for Gov. Sonny Perdue to call a special session of the Legislature this summer and put the tobacco excise tax increase bill on the agenda.

It will generate new revenue the state desperately needs while improving the health of all Georgia residents.

Last legislative session, a broad-based coalition of well over 300 groups, including the American Cancer Society, American Lung Association and American Heart Association, proposed that we raise the cigarette tax by a dollar.

The tobacco tax hike will bring in an extra $400 million a year in new revenue to help plug the state's budget holes while reducing smoking and improving the health of all Georgians.

Nearly all states have seen the benefits of this action: A total of 45 states have raised their cigarette taxes 87 times since 2002. Already this year, Florida, Tennessee, Kentucky, Arkansas and Mississippi have increased their cigarette tax.

Rep. Ron Stephens (R-Garden City) authored cigarette tax legislation that is alive and well in the Georgia House Ways and Means Committee.

A hearing took place earlier this year where representatives of the Pass the Buck coalition and bipartisan supporters made a very compelling argument for the state to increase the tax on cigarettes from 37 cents to $1.37 and illustrated why "passing the buck" will be a win-win-win for Georgia.

There is a direct correlation between increasing the tax and decreasing smoking. More than 10,000 Georgians die each year from advanced smoking-related diseases. Studies have consistently shown that every time a cigarette tax is raised significantly, a decline in smoking prevalence follows. Raising the tax would save lives.

A $1 increase in Georgia's cigarette tax would generate nearly $400 million in new revenue for our state. The money raised could be used for health care related purposes or to avoid more state cuts. Additionally, the state spends $2.25 billion every year treating smoking-related illnesses. Our Medicare and Medicaid programs bear the brunt of these expenses. We would all get a much-needed tax break.

The cigarette tax increase is a popular solution among Georgia voters. In recent polling, nearly 75 percent of respondents indicated that they favor a tobacco tax increase. Politicians needn't worry about their ability to be re-elected if they vote for this bi-partisan solution. Since the last time the tax was raised here in Georgia, Perdue and Rep. Glenn Richardson (R-Hiram) have gained political status —- Richardson is now speaker of the House while Perdue handily defeated all comers in his 2006 bid for re-election.

It's time for Georgia to join the growing national and worldwide movement to curtail smoking and improve the health of all citizens.

The more we can discourage people from smoking, the more lives will be saved and the fewer dollars Georgians will pay.

With state revenues spiraling downward, decisive action is needed soon.

Perdue should call for a special session of the Legislature and make the tobacco tax hike bill a part of the agenda.

It's a tax that nearly 80 percent of the people in Georgia, who are nonsmokers, will never pay and one that will benefit all Georgians.

Deborah Riner is the volunteer advocacy ambassador for the American Cancer Society in Georgia.