Utah lawmakers OK bill to hike tobacco tax

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Cigarettes in Utah could go up by about a dollar a pack under a bill passed by a House committee Friday.

House Bill 196, sponsored by Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, would raise the tobacco tax from 69.5 cents to $1.70 per pack. The House panel passed it on a 5-2 vote.

This is the third year in a row that Ray has proposed bumping up the tax. A traditional aversion to hikes of any kind has stalled the bill in the past.

But Ray says the expected $700 million budget shortfall will make it a more alluring option for former opponents, who might jump at the estimated $22.5 million the tax would generate.

Ray is promoting the tax as a way of offsetting Utah's Medicaid costs linked to smoking-related illnesses.

"This is probably the only tax increase you'll ever be able to vote on that's actually a tax decrease to the majority of the public," Ray said.

Still, some lawmakers said they opposed the measure.

"I am extremely concerned (about) trying to use tax policy to change personal behavior," said Rep. Stephen Sandstrom, R-Orem.

Utah Taxpayers Association Vice President Royce Van Tassell told the panel that the estimated revenue in the bill was an exaggeration and Utahns don't need another tax.

"This is a bill that will do nothing to stimulate the economy," Van Tassell said. "If anything it will make it harder for Utah to come out of the current recession."

The Utah Department of Health says that nearly 1,150 Utahns die every year because they smoke.

(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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