Leader Blues

Monday, February 16, 2009

TOP STORY >> Ex-legislator pleased her plan passed

Leader editor-in-chief

Former Rep. Sandra Prater, D-Jacksonville, who had introduced a bill for more trauma centers in the state when she was still in the legislature, is glad the tobacco-tax increase was approved in the Senate this week and in the House the week before.

The bill will establish trauma and health centers around the state, especially in rural areas.

“It will assist the whole state,” Prater said after the Senate voted this week to raise the tobacco tax 56 cents a pack.

“We’re trying to save lives. I’m glad it passed.”

She said hospitals in many parts of the state will have trauma centers with full-time staffs around the clock, seven days a week. The tax increase, which will raise $87.8 million a year for health programs and a medical school in Fayetteville, goes into effect on March 1.

Gov. Mike Beebe, who championed the bill, is expected to sign it into law next week.
The tobacco industry was badly burned on Thursday when a supermajority in the state Senate approved the tax increase.

Big tobacco also failed a week earlier in the House, where a three-fourths majority approved the higher tax.

The tobacco lobby might have to rethink its battle plans after getting its nose bloodied again. Every time a state gets ready to increase the tobacco tax to pay for health programs, the industry parachutes its lobbyists into state capitols to complain about how unfair it is to raise taxes on people who can’t kick their nicotine addiction.

Arkansas smokers cost the state $627 million a year for healthcare needs, or about $7.50 a pack, according to one state official.

The higher tax is put on a toxic product that kills about 5,000 Arkansans a year, or about 10 percent of smokers in the state. More Arkansans smoke per capita than in the prosperous areas of the country because the less affluent and the less educated still think of smoking as glamorous and pretend it’s not harmful, although millions around the world die from heart and lung disease and other related illnesses every year.

These tax fights in state legislatures make the tobacco industry look pretty awful. People are reminded how lethal smoking is, and they even think about quitting, especially because of the higher taxes. Even Mississippi — where Haley Barbour, a former tobacco lobbyist, is the governor — will increase the tax by about the same amount as Arkansas, and perhaps even more.

You wonder why tobacco companies pick fights they can’t win. They might as well save the money they spend on lobbyists and legislators and go along with the tax increases, even if it means losing some customers. They’ll probably see a 5 percent drop in the number of smokers here, but there are better prospects in Third World countries, where there are no embarrassing health warnings or noisy media to point out the dangers of smoking.

The votes in the House and Senate generally went along party lines, with every Democrat in the area favoring the tax increase, while every local Republican opposed it, even though health programs will benefit their constituents.

Why the reluctance to raise the sales tax on a narcotic? Some legislators smoke and didn’t want to raise the tax on their drug of choice.

But can anybody explain why a pro-life party voted anti-life on the tobacco tax? Every healthcare provider said the tax would reduce smoking, save lives and offer more health services throughout the state.

Leading the fight for better healthcare in the Senate were Bobby Glover, D-Carlisle, and John Paul Capps, D-Searcy. In the House, those siding for health care include Rep. Walls McCrary, D-Lonoke, whose parents died from smoking, as well as Reps. Mark Perry, D-Jacksonville and Jim Nickels, D-Sherwood.

Local Republicans voting against the tax were Davy Carter, R-Cabot, Jonathan Dismang, R-Beebe, and Jane English, R-North Little Rock.

Dismang told us, “I do not think that is good public policy to raise taxes and pull $90 million from our state’s economy, especially when we have a $300 million surplus and experiencing a national recession. I ran as a fiscal conservative and I will hold my office as a fiscal conservative.”

But look at the Republican representatives who voted for the bill: Robert Dale of Dover (Pope County), Roy Ragland of Marshall (Searcy County), and Rep. Beverly Pyle of Cedarville (Crawford County). Not only do they have more smokers per capita in those poor rural areas, but they could use more health clinics and other health services that the tobacco tax will provide.

The tax had strong opposition in northwest Arkansas, as most Republicans went against the tax, even though it will pay for that medical school in Fayetteville. Still, such pragmatists as Sen. Kim Hendren, R-Gravette, and Sen. Cecil Bledsoe, R-Rogers, saw the benefits of a medical school and voted for the tax hike.

Surgeon General Joe Thomp-son says the tax increase was about more than just a trauma system.

“Tobacco is the major burden on our citizens, and a strategy to increase its price is a well-proven mechanism to keep youth from starting smoking and to reduce adult smoking,” Thompson told reporters. “The health-care programs are broadly based and meet a lot of needs.”

The tax passed because most representatives saw the benefits of new health-care programs in their districts, especially in rural areas. Don’t let the industry and its lobbyists blow smoke in your face.