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Lawmakers finally raise cigarette tax-Greenville News

State lawmakers finally took action to end South Carolina’s status as the most smoking-friendly state in the nation. After the House and Senate voted last week to override Gov. Mark Sanford’s short-sighted veto of a 50-cent cigarette tax increase, this state no longer holds the dubious distinction of having the lowest cigarette tax in the nation.

Lawmakers who voted to override this veto deserve credit for their common-sense votes. Those who voted to sustain the veto took a narrow-sighted ideological path on a tax that will be directed to where it can do the most good and one that will have some very positive side effects.

The passage of this bill means that fewer South Carolinians will take up smoking and more South Carolinians will quit. That’s good for the whole state because the state spends $223 per capita every year on direct medical expenses to treat smoking-related illnesses, according to data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

According to data from the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, 22.3 percent of South Carolinians smoke, including 19.1 percent of high school students. According to a recent report in The Greenville News , a 50-cent increase in the cigarette tax will prevent 23,300 South Carolina children who are alive today from becoming smokers; it will prompt 12,800 adult smokers to quit; and it will save more than 10,000 state residents from a premature, smoking-related death. In addition, the tax increase will generate $529 million in long-term health-care savings.

Given the impact that a higher cigarette tax has on encouraging people to quit smoking, it didn’t matter where the money from this tax went. That battle was overdrawn and the arguments for a tax decrease to offset this increase were tired. Still, lawmakers were right to use most of this money to help offset health-care costs, keeping the cigarette tax money where it generally belongs.

According to The News , Sanford vetoed the tax because it would hurt the state’s economy, would not fix health-care problems facing the state and it doesn’t address needed spending reforms. He has consistently demanded that any cigarette tax increase be paired with a corresponding tax cut. Sanford’s stubborn position ignores the positives that will come from this tax.

The tax, which takes effect on July 1, will raise an estimated $125 million per year. The bulk of the money will go to a trust fund that can be accessed in 2012 to fill an anticipated gap in Medicaid funding. Another $5 million will be spent on smoking cessation programs, $5 million on cancer research; and $1 million on marketing of South Carolina agricultural products.

This tax increase has been a long time coming. This latest effort to raise the tax to benefit Medicaid began in 2002, and the state’s cigarette tax had been stagnant since 1977.

Credit goes to lawmakers and advocacy groups who kept up the pressure to increase this embarrassingly low tax. At 7 cents per pack, the state’s tax was by far the lowest cigarette tax in the nation (the next lowest was 17 cents in Missouri), and an argument could be made that South Carolina was, in effect, subsidizing cigarette smoking.

This is a step forward for South Carolina. Thirty-three years was far too long to go without an increase in this tax. More important, the increase in the cigarette tax will pave the way for a healthier South Carolina as more people are encouraged to quit smoking or to never take it up in the first place.

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