Commentary: Time to increase cigarette tax

This editorial appeared in The Lexington Herald-Leader.

What's the legislative equivalent of walking and chewing gum at the same time?

Responding to an emergency while also looking out for the state's long-term interests.

Kentucky lawmakers can prove they can walk and chew gum at the same time by making a meaningful increase in the state tax on cigarettes. They can do it at almost no political risk to themselves.

Yet we're told that it will be a tough sale, even in the Democratic House, which approved a cigarette-tax increase last year only to see it die in the Republican Senate.

This resistance is puzzling. Slashing education to stem the flood of budgetary red ink would be far more unpopular. Poll after poll has shown that Kentucky voters support a higher cigarette tax.

The latest, released by a health coalition, found that 2 of 3 voters would support a $1 tax increase on a pack of cigarettes. Gov. Steve Beshear is asking for 70 cents, raising the tax to $1 a pack.

The attachment to cheap smokes is partly a holdover from a past when tobacco was king. But even the Kentucky Farm Bureau has softened its opposition, and agriculture boomed last year despite tobacco's eclipse as a cash crop.

Greater resistance seems to come from cigarette-makers and convenience store owners: Tobacco-tax increases have fallen short of expectations in other states, they argue, and Kentucky would see diminishing returns as smokers quit or bought cigarettes on the Internet, creating a new budget hole.

This is an oddly purist argument in a state that's been holding together its budgets with duct tape and bailing twine.

To read the complete editorial, visit The Lexington Herald-Leader.