Proposed cigarette tax hike falls flat in Iowa House

American Lung Association gives Iowa failing grades for tobacco control, smoking cessation

DES MOINES -- American Cancer Society advocates want Iowa lawmakers to consider raising the state’s cigarette tax again to discourage tobacco use, but House Republicans quickly snuffed out that idea Wednesday.

Dr. Richard Deming, a radiation oncologist who is medical director at Mercy Cancer Center in Des Moines and a cancer society volunteer who founded the “Above + Beyond Cancer” program, said Iowa saw positive results in tobacco use among Iowans when the state cigarette tax increased to $1.36 a pack in March 2007 but he expressed concern that those trends are beginning to reverse course as state funding of tobacco cessation and prevention programs have declined.

“Tobacco kills more people than any other substance and one third of all cancers are caused by tobacco,” said Deming, who joined other “Cancer Action Network” advocates to lobby state legislators on cancer-fighting initiatives. “Increasing the cost of a pack of cigarette will decrease smoking. It’s been proven time and time again. If we were to increase the tobacco tax, that would decrease smoking and that would save lives.”

Society spokesman Chuck Reed said Iowa ranked 26th nationally for cigarette taxes after former Gov. Chet Culver signed the dollar-per-pack increase but has slipped since as other states have approved tax hikes on tobacco products. Anti-smoking proponents have not proposed a specific increase, but Reed noted that any tax hike would have to be enough to encourage smokers to quit or not start the habit.

Branstad spokesman Tim Albrecht said the governor has not proposed a cigarette tax increase and has not seen any movement in the Legislature to suggest that one is forthcoming.

Rep. Dave Heaton, R-Mount Pleasant, co-chairman of the House-Senate health and human services budget subcommittee, said “I’m under the understanding that our smoking rates are going down” and state law enforcement officers have indicated that Iowa already faces a “bootlegging” problem in southern Iowa due to smokers bringing cigarettes into Iowa from Missouri, which has the lowest state cigarette tax in the nation.

“I think right now the cost of a pack of cigarettes in this state is enough to discourage people from smoking. I think the rates are going down. If they want to bring me information that shows otherwise, I’d be willing to look at it but right now I think we’re doing a good job,” Heaton said. He did not think a proposal to raise the cigarette tax in Iowa would advance this legislation session.

House Majority Leader Linda Upmeyer, R-Garner, said any of the issues being advocated by the Cancer Action Network to raise the cigarette tax, promoting awareness of radon gas with testing and mitigation requirements or extending Iowa’s clean indoor air law to casino floors at state-licensed gambling facilities would have to make their way through the normal legislation process to get consideration this year.

Upmeyer said cancer society lobbyists met with House GOP leaders before the start of the 2013 session “and made no mention of this, so it’s a complete surprise.”

Sen. Jack Hatch, D-Des Moines, the other co-chairman of the Legislature’s health and human services budget subcommittee, said no one had approached him about raising the state cigarette tax but he understood why advocates were pushing it due to the “definite relationship” between the size of the tax and the reduction in smoking and the recent state health agency reductions in funding for cessation and treatment programs for smokers. He said most of the focus this session will be on health-care reform, the insurance exchange and Medicaid expansion.

“I think that’s a legitimate issue to bring in this year since the governor’s made taxes a big priority, but I think it’s probably on the lower side of their priority scale,” he said. “We do not have a good audience with this administration. We’re looking at trying to find solutions this year that can get pass. It’s a legitimate proposal, but one that might not see much discussion this year.”

Meghan O’Brien, director of the state Department of Public Health’s division of tobacco use prevention & control, said the methodology used for surveying the prevalence of smoking has changed, making it difficult to establish a reliable trend line for Iowa but it appears the rapid decline that was projected in past years may have been overstated or didn’t occur. The most recent data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that about 16.1 percent of adults in Iowa were smokers in 2010, but O’Brien said Iowa’s prevalence rate is 20.4 percent for 2011 using the new methodology.

The return of the cigarette tax issue at the Iowa Capitol surfaced on a day when the American  Lung Association gave Iowa failing grades for tobacco prevention and control program coverage and cessation coverage, a ‘D’ for the state’s $1.36 a pack cigarette tax and an ‘A’ for the state’s smoke-free air law.

“Iowa has the unfortunate distinction of failing to make progress in the fight against tobacco use in 2012, meanwhile Big Tobacco was busy honing clever new tactics to lure new youth smokers,” said association executive director Micki Sandquist.

“Tobacco causes an estimated 4,442 deaths in Iowa annually and costs the state’s economy $1,910,667,000 in health-care costs and lost productivity, a tremendous burden that our state can ill afford,” according to an association news release. “Although Iowa receives $293 million in tobacco-related revenue annually, it only invests a meager $3.65 million on tobacco prevention and cessation programs. The failure of states across the U.S. to invest in policies and programs to reduce tobacco use has resulted in 3 million new youth and young smokers in the United States, according to the Surgeon General’s 2012 report.”

Sandquist said her group hoped Iowa officials would take action to increase state funding for tobacco control programs, remove barriers to cessation coverage and increase the price of tobacco products.

“It’s time Iowa removes Big Tobacco’s welcome mat,” Sandquist said in a statement. “Leaders in Iowa’s Capital must provide smokers with the support they need to quit and adequately fund programs that help keep our kids off tobacco. We can no longer allow the Hawkeye State to be the tobacco industry’s playground.”

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