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Proposed Cigarette Tax Not on Agenda for Special Session

January 5, 2009

The special legislative session called to deal with the $2.3 billion hole in the Florida state budget begins today, but a cigarette tax hike won't be discussed. In a partisan split, Republican leadership chose instead to focus on spending cuts, hiking court fees and transferring money from the state's trust funds. Democrats had sought to raise the state tobacco tax, one of the lowest in the nation, by $1 a pack.

State legislator Jim Waldman, author of the bill, says the legislation will now have to wait for the regular session in March. He estimates it could raise $1 billion in revenue the first year, help fund health care and discourage teens from smoking.

"I just think it is critical that we do it. The financial health of our state requires that we do it and the healthy future of our teens demands it."

Studies indicate that a 10 percent increase in the price of cigarettes means a seven percent decrease in the number of teens smoking, Waldman adds.

"The higher the price of cigarettes, the fewer teens will begin smoking. And, later on in life, they will not become a burden, not only on society, but to their families and to themselves."

Smoking-related illnesses cost over $6 billion a year in Florida, Waldman explains, and more than $1 billion of that is at taxpayer expense. He argues it is a fairness issue, because currently non-smokers are footing the bill for the health care expenses of many smokers.

Laura Goodhue is executive director of Florida CHAIN, which is part of a coalition calling for cigarette tax revenue to be used to fund health care. She says the biggest priority is to save programs scheduled to be cut from the budget -- programs that provide care for disabled elderly and people with catastrophic illnesses.

"These people depend upon these programs for their lives, basically, and they're cut every year, or they’re kind of held in limbo. These programs need to be fully funded by a dedicated revenue source."

Critics of the plan say it's not the time to raise taxes, and a tax on cigarettes hurts the poor.

Gina Presson/Gina Presson , Public News Service - FL