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Lawmaker doubles proposed cigarette tax hike

Lawmaker doubles proposed cigarette tax hike



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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- A pack of cigarettes would cost $1 more under a proposal being floated by a conservative lawmaker who wants to make smoking less affordable and punish tobacco companies that he says helped bury a bill earlier this year that would have raised the tax by only 50 cents a pack.

"I told the tobacco (companies), 'If you screw with it -- if anything happens -- I'm doubling it and bringing it back,"' said Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clinton.

Ray introduced a bill late in the legislative session that ended March 5 that would have increased the tax from 69 cents to $1.19 pack, a 72 percent increase. Nationally, the average tax is $1.18 per pack.

Ray's bill made it through a committee hearing, but never came up for a floor vote. Ray declined to specify why he believes his bill didn't come up for a vote, although he said he had enough votes lined up for it to pass.

"There were some games played with it. I'm not too happy about that," he said.

At the time, Ray acknowledged that pushing a bill through the Legislature in the final weeks of the session and persuading lawmakers opposed to any tax hikes would be difficult.

This time around, he's opened a bill file months before the 2009 legislative session and says he won't waste time trying to persuade lawmakers who are entrenched in opposition. He said some members of the Senate have already contacted him about co-sponsoring his bill, and he's got the time to rally the public support he needs. "I don't like to surprise people," he said.

Utah has the 34th highest cigarette tax in the country and revenue from the increase would have been used to pay for medical scholarships and cancer screening.

Ray is one of the most conservative members of the Legislature and has found himself in the rare position of advocating a tax increase.

The issue is a personal one for Ray, who grew up in a home of smokers.

"Tobacco killed my dad and it's killing my mother," he said. "I would rather lose a political campaign for doing something that's right than not do anything."

The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids estimates that increasing the price of cigarettes by 50 cents would generate an additional $25.8 million in revenue in Utah, result in 4,400 fewer adult smokers and save the state $171 million in long-term health care costs.

Similar estimates for a $1 increase were not immediately available. A pack of cigarettes in Utah costs about $3.40.

"We know that any time the price goes up, children or young adults, are sensitive to the price, which means that in the long run they delay smoking. Also, adults are sensitive to prices. We know that gets us a reduction," said Beverly May, Western Regional Director for the campaign. "It's time for an increase. It's been a long time."

The last time Utah raised its cigarette tax was in 2002, by 18 cents.

New York has the highest state cigarette tax in the country at $2.57 a pack. South Carolina has the lowest tax at 7 cents pack.

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

Brock Vergakis Writer

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