Health Advocates Take Another Crack At Tobacco Tax

Feb 1, 2017

Public health advocates pushing for Kansas to increase taxes on cigarettes and other tobacco products are running into the same opposing arguments they did two years ago.

University of Kansas Cancer Center Director Roy Jensen and others pushed for a $1.50-per-pack tax hike in 2015 and were disappointed when the Legislature ultimately settled on a 50-cent increase.

Kansas has another budget crisis this year and health advocates are again urging legislators to fill some of it with a tax increase large enough to make Kansans think twice about smoking.

“There is nothing more effective we can do to more directly impact our smoking rate than increase our tobacco tax,” Jensen told the House Taxation Committee this week.

The committee isn’t considering a specific bill yet but took public input on Gov. Sam Brownback’s proposal to raise cigarette taxes by $1 a pack and double the current tax on cigars and smokeless tobacco products.

The lobbying wings of the American Cancer Society, MS Society and American Lung Association joined Jensen in pushing for even higher tobacco taxes than what Brownback has proposed.

But some legislators seemed skeptical of raising the taxes at all, predicting it would just send buyers to other states or online.

“Seems like we’re working really hard this year to see money walk out of the state,” said Rep. Ken Corbet, a Republican from Topeka.

Rep. Kristey Williams, a Republican from Augusta, asked Jensen whether the last cigarette tax increase had reduced smoking rates.

Roy Jensen, director, KU Cancer Center
Credit Andy Marso / Kansas News Service

“It’s gone down a little bit, although we don’t have great data on that,” Jensen said.

He reminded the committee that he and the others had asked for an increase three times higher.

“Sadly, if you don’t increase it by a significant level, the impact on the smoking rates is pretty minimal,” Jensen said. “And that’s where we are after 2015.”

Tobacco industry lobbyists lined up to tell the committee members they should not touch the taxes.

“This is a regressive tax that targets and penalizes a certain segment of consumers,” said John Federico, who represents smokeless tobacco manufacturers.

Federico noted that voters rejected ballot questions to increase tobacco taxes last year in several states, including Missouri, which has the country’s lowest cigarette taxes.

Kurt Diebel, the owner of Diebel’s Sportsmens Gallery stores in the Kansas City area, said cigar sales at his Kansas location would plummet if taxes go up.

“I think my customers will run to Missouri,” Diebel said.

None of those arguments resonated with Conley Cornell, a Coffeyville woman who told the tax committee about watching her father die of lung cancer.

“He had smoked for years and had tried to quit for years,” Cornell said. “It was absolutely a horrific way to die. Painful.”

Andy Marso is a reporter for KCUR’s Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio and KMUW covering health, education and politics in Kansas. You can reach him on Twitter @andymarso. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to kcur.org.