Public health advocates see election-year cigarette tax hike in Iowa as unlikely

Gerd Clabaugh (right), director of the Iowa Department of Public Health, and state Rep. John Forbes, D-Urbandale, discus
Gerd Clabaugh (right), director of the Iowa Department of Public Health, and state Rep. John Forbes, D-Urbandale, discuss medical cannabis and opioid abuse during Friday’s taping of Iowa Public Television’s “Iowa Press” in Johnston. Forbes said he doubted the Iowa Legislature would consider increasing the tax on cigarettes in the 2018 session, given that it’s an election year. (Photo by James Q. Lynch/The Gazette)

JOHNSTON — A cigarette tax hike that would provide resources for a variety of public health programs may get “some discussion” but is unlikely to be approved in an election-year session of the Iowa Legislature, according to one lawmaker who supports a $1.50-a-pack increase.

“I’ve always been against cigarette smoking,” Rep. John Forbes, D-Urbandale, said. “Whenever we can put a tax on something that will hopefully reduce usage, especially on cigarettes, I’m in favor of that.”

However, Forbes, who sits on the Human Resources and Health Policy Oversight committees, doubts lawmakers will support a tax hike in 2018.

Forbes made his comment during taping of “Iowa Press,” which can be seen at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 22 and noon Dec. 24 on Iowa Public Television and at 8:30 a.m. Dec. 23 on IPTV World. It will be available beginning next week at

Forbes and Gerd Clabaugh, director for the Iowa Department of Public Health, were reacting to a proposal by a coalition of 19 groups to more than double the cigarette tax from $1.36 a pack to $2.86 to generate more than $106 million for health and tobacco cessation efforts. Eleven years ago, raising the tax by $1 a pack won bipartisan support.

In calling for the increase, supporters said it could keep 19,000 youth from becoming smokers and help 22,000 adults quit while also helping address the $1.2 billion Iowa spends yearly on smoking-related health issues and an estimated $1.21 billion in lost productivity.

As the administrator of state public health programs, “I’m going to tell you there’s always need for resources,” Clabaugh said. However, raising the tax is not his call, but a question for Forbes and other policymakers, he said.


Among the areas where resources are needed are funding the state’s fledgling medical cannabis program and reducing opioid and substance abuse problems, Clabaugh and Forbes said.

The medical cannabis program that is supposed to make the drug available to Iowans by Dec. 1, 2018, may need an appropriation of $500,000 to $1 million, Forbes said.

Under an expanded medical cannabis law, Iowans diagnosed with cancer, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, seizures, Crohn’s disease, ALS, AIDS, HIV or most terminal illnesses now may possess approved marijuana products.

“We want to avoid pricing ourselves out of the market by overburdening companies that are going to get into this business with fees,” said Forbes, a pharmacist who was involved on the legislative debate earlier this year. “When we do that, they’re going to have to pass those costs back on to consumers who are going to purchases medical cannabis.”

To combat the state’s opioid epidemic, Clabaugh said the public health department wants to expand its efforts to promote community and individual resiliency. It is working with community-based organizations on education and early intervention as well as increasing the availability and access to naloxone, as countermeasures to opioid-related overdoses.

Last year, the state said 180 Iowans died from opioid abuse and that number is expected to exceed 200 this year. Iowa emergency services providers reported administering 691 doses of naloxone in the first 10 months of this year — just 20 fewer than in all of 2016.

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