Georgia Senate panel moves to hike taxes on cigarettes to $1.35 a pack

Taxes on cigarettes would go from 37 cents per pack to $1.35 under a measure passed by a key Georgia Senate committee Friday.

The Senate Finance Committee approved an amended bill sponsored by Sen. Randy Robertson, R-Cataula, to raise cigarette taxes.

Members of both parties have pushed for the increase for years with the backing of health experts and policy groups, who say it could keep some Georgians from smoking and raise badly needed revenue at a time when the General Assembly is slashing spending.

Lawmakers said the state spends about $650 million a year to treat patients who are on taxpayer-funded heath programs for tobacco-related illnesses.

Raising the rate to $1.35 a pack would still put Georgia below the national average of about $1.80. Currently, Georgia has among the lowest tobacco tax rates in the country.

Even if the measure passes the Senate, House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, has voiced his opposition to raising tobacco taxes.

Lawmakers - who are expected to end their 2020 session next week - are looking for ways to come up with revenue because the coronavirus pandemic recession has wrecked state finances.

Earlier Friday, the Senate approved a budget for fiscal 2021 - which begins July 1 - that cuts $2.6 billion in spending, including about $1 billion from k-12 schools.

Health groups have been pushing for an increase in state tobacco tax for about decades.

Robertson told the committee that smokers have fared more poorly than non-smokers when they’ve gotten the coronavirus.

Sen. John Albers, R-Roswell, a member of the committee, said the state’s low tobacco taxes amount to a subsidy for smokers because the cost of treating their illnesses is far higher than the taxes currently brought in.

“With this extra money, we could be doing things like helping fill the gaps for special needs waivers and education and things we are most passionate about,” Albers said.

Sen. Bruce Thompson, R-White, another member of the committee, said he generally doesn’t support increasing taxes.

“I don’t see addressing the cigarette tax as increasing taxes,” he said. “What I see it as is eliminating the subsidization that is already out there.”

The Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, an Atlanta think tank that has pushed for the increase, praised the committee.

“Lifting the tobacco tax will simultaneously help our state fund critical priorities, such as health and education, and boost health outcomes,” said Danny Kanso, policy analyst for the group.

The group said raising the tax to the national average would bring in about $600 million a year.