Health

A renewed effort to get people to quit smoking in Kentucky is launching Wednesday in Frankfort. Led by the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky and Baptist Health, at the top of the coalition’s to-do list is to raise the cigarette tax to $1.60 a pack. That’s a $1 increase over the current rate.

“The whole idea is to cut this terribly damaging smoking rate that we’ve got in Kentucky,” said Ben Chandler, chair of the newly formed Coalition for a Smoke-free Tomorrow. “We’re 70 percent above the national average, and [smoking] has tremendous economic damage.”

Generally, a 10 percent increase in the price of a pack of cigarettes could result in a 2.5 to 5 percent decline in overall smoking, according to a policy brief last month in the journal, Health Affairs. That means increasing the tax even by 6 cents could potentially mean 220,000 Kentuckians would stop smoking.

The Coalition for a Smoke-free Tomorrow estimates its proposed tobacco tax of $1.60 would raise $266 million in new state revenue each year. Kentucky’s current cigarette tax is the 43rd lowest in the nation, and even raising it to to $1.60 would put the state below the national average of $1.71 a pack.

The Kentucky Farm Bureau is a main opponent of increasing the state cigarette tax. KFB argues that increasing the tax would mean less revenues for Kentucky because smokers might go to neighboring states to buy cheaper cigarettes.

Neighboring Missouri has the lowest cigarette tax in the U.S. at 17 cents per pack. Virginia’s tax is the second lowest at 30 cents. Thirty-four states have a cigarette tax of $1 or more, including West Virginia, Ohio and Illinois.

Meanwhile, cigars, pipe tobacco, e-cigarettes and “roll-your-own tobacco” are not taxed.

But besides the additional revenue that could come from raising the tax, Chandler said there would be other benefits to the state. He said many companies don’t locate in Kentucky because of the likelihood of having many employees who smoke.

“Businesses lose money on the front end with a lack of productivity and the back end having to pay health care costs,” Chandler said.

According to the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, companies pay $5,800 more in costs for employees who smoke versus employees who do not. The group says illnesses related to tobacco use and secondhand smoke cause 9,000 deaths each year, and cost $1.92 billion in health care expenditures. Nearly $590 million of those annual costs are covered by Medicaid, the state’s insurance program for low-income and disabled people that is funded through taxpayer dollars.

In 2014, Kentucky spent $39.2 million on tobacco control programs like the toll-free hotline, cessation classes and anti-smoking marketing. That’s almost $20 million less than the Centers for Disease Control recommends the state spend.

Chandler said the group would also like to see a statewide law to ban smoking in the workplace or indoor public places, but such a move is unlikely to get legislative approval. So instead, the group will push counties and cities to enact smoke-free laws.

Lisa Gillespie is WFPL's Health and Innovation Reporter.