The Arkansas Tax Reform and Relief Legislative Task Force had a veritable buffet of options to consider this week as it prepared its recommendations for the Legislature. But they decided to pass on the only consideration that could improve the state’s financial and public health — a $1.50-per-pack cigarette tax increase.
We just witnessed Oklahoma employ a tax increase on deadly tobacco products this year. Their $1-per-pack cigarette tax increase was part of a larger revenue package – and it will prove to be a boon for their state’s coffers. The tax task force looked past it, and now it’s on our legislators to take note of what Oklahoma did to improve its economy and health and employ the same strategy in our state, where lung cancer is the most prevalent and deadliest form of cancer.
Incidences of cancer, heart disease, stroke and respiratory disease in Arkansas are exceedingly high, and the common link behind those numbers is tobacco use. Our state’s tobacco use rate has not declined at the same rate as the rest of the country. The adult smoking rate in Arkansas is the third-highest in the country at 23.6 percent, and our youth smoking rate is 13.7 percent — well above the national average. More than one-third of cancer deaths in Arkansas are directly attributable to smoking. This is an unacceptable statistic in 2018.
A new report from the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network also points out that the state isn’t doing well when it comes to tobacco control. “How Do You Measure Up?: A Progress Report on State Legislative Activity to Reduce Cancer Incidence and Mortality,” rates states in nine specific areas of public policy that can help fight cancer, including increased access to care through Medicaid, smoke-free laws, cigarette tax levels, funding for tobacco prevention and cessation programs, and cessation coverage under Medicaid. Arkansas hasn’t earned the highest grade in any of the tobacco control-related categories, meaning we haven’t adopted evidence-based policies and best practices to eliminate the scourge of tobacco. A cigarette tax increase would change that.
By increasing the state cigarette tax by $1.50 per pack, legislators could save 14,000 lives in our state and generate $121.3 million in new annual revenue. The savings don’t stop there, because tobacco use comes with big bills: More than $1.2 billion in annual health care costs are attributed to smoking, including nearly $300 million in Medicaid costs. Additionally, Arkansas experiences $1.7 billion in smoking-caused productivity losses annually. An increase of $1.50 per pack would generate long-term healthcare savings of $1.03 billion.
An increase in the cigarette tax allows the Legislature and the governor the flexibility to do what needs to be done to better our state’s tax policy. Such a move will allow us to do more to recruit and retain business, as well as attract highly skilled workers. It’s not every day that the Legislature considers a sweeping overhaul of the state tax code, so they need to strongly consider a move that not only improves our state’s economy, but also improves our health. Increasing the cigarette tax is a good business move that the Legislature cannot afford to pass up. Livelihoods and lives depend on it. Let’s do it.
Editor’s note: Michael Keck is the Government Relations Director for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network of Arkansas. Opinions, commentary and other essays posted in this space are wholly the view of the author.