Nurse sponsors bill critics say would ease sales of tobacco in Georgia

Georgia has among the lowest cigarette taxes in the nation, and tobacco is the state’s leading cause of preventable death, according to state health officials.

So this year, Georgia lawmakers introduced several bills on tobacco — to make it even cheaper, and easier to buy, that is.

Amid concerted opposition by at least five health organizations including the American Lung Association and Healthy Mothers Healthy Babies, two of the bills failed to advance by last week’s Crossover Day deadline.

One bill, however, passed the House. House Bill 835 would make it easier to sell tobacco at special events such as the Masters golf tournament.

Health lobbyists expect that one of the failed bills, Senate Bill 418, which would have outlawed local government attempts to regulate products including tobacco, may come back to life by insertion in some other bill.

The other failed bill conceivably could, too. That bill, House Bill 877, would have halved Georgia's tax on so-called "modified-risk" tobacco products, such as electronic cigarettes.

Anti-smoking groups remain on the lookout.

“We’re very concerned about them,” said Laura Colbert, the president of Georgians for a Healthy Future, which opposes all the bills. “If we’re really thinking about making a healthier population, a workforce that’s productive and has everything it needs to succeed, we should be restricting access to tobacco and other unhealthy products.”

HB 835, the surviving bill, was introduced by Republican state Rep. Jodi Lott of Evans, just outside Augusta. She is a registered nurse and said she is not an avid fan of smoking. She said her bill won't increase the number of smokers in Georgia.

“This bill has no impact on smokers. We’re not changing anything about who smokes, what they smoke or where they smoke,” Lott said. “It’s only purpose is to simplify the Department of Revenue codes for tax filing.”

Lott’s measure would allow tobacco sellers to buy $10 permits that allow them to sell their products at off-site locations and during special events.

Under current law, businesses can sell tobacco products off-premise, but they have to go through more complicated sales tax filings. HB 835 would simplify that, Lott said.

While Lott said it is a bureaucratic cleanup measure, some opponents of the bill say that making it easier to open pop-up vending locations would increase the amount of smoking in Georgia.

Andy Freedman, an American Cancer Society lobbyist, said the legislation doesn’t take into account local ordinances in cities that don’t want tobacco businesses selling products at events.

“If a city or county is opposed to it, with the way the bill is written right now, it doesn’t matter,” he said. “All the person has to do is go to the Department of Revenue, pay the $10 and get the permit.”

State Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, a co-sponsor of the bill, said it would legalize under-the-table cigar and cigarette selling that goes on anyway. He said businesses are selling cigars without a permit during the Masters. The bill will now make those event sales legal with a $10 permit.

Officials with the Augusta National Golf Club, the site of the Masters, declined to comment.

Freeman said HB 835 would also allow tobacco products at other events to be much more easily accessible to adolescents. Many tobacco products come with flavors, such as fruit or bubblegum. Others are shaped like common objects, such as USB hard drives. Freeman said vendors know they are attracting young people with those types of products, and HB 835 would make it even easier.

“The bill doesn’t address who’s going to be checking to make sure that it’s not a 16-, 17-year-old kid, or younger, who’s buying the product,” Freeman said. “I don’t think vendors should even be selling products designed specifically for kids.

“There’s going to be a lot of kids at these festivals, buying and smoking, and no one will acknowledge it.”

The Georgia Department of Public Health estimates that tobacco use costs the state 11,500 lives each year and $5 billion in costs such as lost wages and medical care.

Georgia’s cigarette tax is among the nation’s lowest. The state ranks 49th in the average price for a pack of cigarettes, making it the second-cheapest state to buy them. While the national average state cigarette tax is $1.69 per pack, Georgia’s cigarette tax is only 37 cents.

For smokers such as Sandy Springs resident Emily Hunt, Georgia is the place to be. She knows there are risks but still smokes every day. Standing outside the Capitol one day last month, she said she was aware of the bills.

“I pay around $90 every month on cigarettes, but if I lived anywhere else in the United States, I’d probably pay more,” she said. “It’s great. They’re cheaper here than anywhere I’ve been.”

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