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Tobacco tax still being considered as budget cuts loom



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SALT LAKE CITY -- Utah lawmakers say fine-tuning the budget could include cuts and tapping into the rainy day fund. Despite being defeated in a Senate committee, a tobacco tax increase is still up in the air, even in tight times.

A few lawmakers say if a tobacco tax were a no-brainer, it would be a done deal. But it's not going to happen at this moment.

At the same time, a few key people -- including the governor -- are leaving the door open to the possibility.


Utah's tobacco tax is the 34th lowest in the United States. -Cancer Action Network

The proposed tobacco tax increase would add up to $50 million if it passes, but key Utah lawmakers are skeptical of whether or not it's worth it and are lukewarm about supporting it.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Jenkins said, "It's the amount, it's what you would use it for, and it's sitting there moving around like that. So unless they can come to some consensus, I'm not sure it will come back out."

It's crunch time at the Legislature. By Friday, the stark reality will start hitting people who depend on state money: Cuts are possible to just about everything.

Those who support a tobacco tax are people who say more cuts are not an option, mainly those who want to take the pressure off crucial programs like Medicaid.

Lincoln Nehring of Utah Health Policy Project said, "I think legislators are realizing that there are very few pots of money left, yet there are all these critical needs that are left unmet."


State cigarette taxes range from 7¢ per pack in South Carolina to a high of $3.46 per pack in Rhode Island. The average state cigarette tax rate is 95.3¢ per pack. -R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company

Right now, the proposal is to increase the current tax from $1.30 per pack of cigarettes to $2. Estimates are that it will raise just over $50 million next year.

But there are other concerns about a tobacco tax: that a decline in smokers will make tax revenue dry up over time.

Also, that the higher tax will drive people out of state, where they'll buy other merchandise, too, and further hurt Utah's economy.

Dave Davis of the Utah Retail Merchants Association said, "For those who are looking at this as a panacea to fix the budget problems, this is not a fix to the budget problems."

But to supporters, it's a health issue, as well as a money issue.

"It is the charge of this Legislature to look out for the health and welfare of the citizens of this state," said Sen. Allen Christensen, R-North Ogden. "This tobacco tax increase would do both."

As for Gov. Gary Herbert, he has stated he is opposed to any tax increase. Still, he hasn't said he will absolutely veto a tobacco tax but needs to see what's passed first.

E-mail: rpiatt@ksl.com

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Richard Piatt

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