SWAN: Tobacco tax increase will improve state's health, bottom line

There is no question that tobacco is the No. 1 preventable cause of death in this country. Each year, tobacco claims the lives of 10,500 Georgians from lung and other cancers and cardiovascular disease. Every year, more than 11,300 Georgia youngsters become daily smokers, and nearly a third of them will die a premature death because of it.

Smoking also has a huge negative impact on our state's budget. Each year, tobacco costs the state $2.25 billion in health care bills, including $537 million in Medicaid payments alone. For every Georgia household, government expenditures related to tobacco amount to a hidden tax of $550 each year. And due to the budget shortfall, programs that will produce long-term savings in the future — like tobacco prevention programs — are being reduced in order to cover the critical services that are in danger of being eliminated. Georgia ranks a disappointing 50th in the nation in funding programs to protect kids from tobacco.

Fortunately for Georgians, there's a proposal before our state legislature that will go a long way toward improving the health of all residents: Increase the state's tobacco excise tax by $1 per pack of cigarettes.

Not only will the measure have huge health benefits for all Georgians by reducing the prevalence of smoking — particularly among youth — and cutting down on second-hand smoke, but it will provide a new stream of reliable, continuous revenue for the state.

Raising the tobacco tax by at least $1 will be a three-tiered win for Georgia:

• A win for public health because it will reduce and deter smoking, especially among the middle-school-age students. For every 10 percent increase in the retail price of tobacco, there is a corresponding 6 percent reduction in youth smokers and a 3 to 4 percent reduction in adult smokers.

• A win for the state's finances because it would generate approximately $354 million in new revenue, and could reduce the $537 million in annual Medicaid expenditures attributable to tobacco related illness.

• A win for lawmakers who support a measure that is favored by 73 percent of Georgia voters — Republicans, Democrats and independents — according to a late February 2010 poll. Even 50 percent of smokers would support the tax increase.

As a retired RN and long-time volunteer with the American Cancer Society and a member of the Gwinnett ACS Leadership Council, I strongly urge our state lawmakers to support a $1 tax increase on tobacco. It should be an easy decision for them because there is public support, and because it will improve both the physical and financial health of our state.

A Lilburn resident, Pat Swan is a retired oncology nurse who volunteers her time for the American Cancer Society and is the lead volunteer for Advocacy issues in Congressional District 7 for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network.