A coalition of health and anti smoking advocates called on the legislature Wednesday to increase state taxes on cigarettes by 95 cents a pack, citing a new poll that found broad support for the proposal among Connecticut voters.
The poll, commissioned by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, found that 70 percent of the 500 voters sampled between May 7 and May 9 supported raising the tax. The advocacy groups, which also included the American Cancer Society, the American Lung Association, and the American Heart Association, held a press conference Wednesday morning in the Legislative Office Building to unveil the poll.
Kevin O’Flaherty, an advocacy director for the campaign, said estimates prepared by the group’s research staff found that raising the tax on cigarettes would generate an extra $50.68 million in annual revenue for the state. He called the tax hike a “no-brainer” for Connecticut.
“During a time when ‘tax’ has become a four letter word, likely voters in Connecticut indicate they see an increase in the cigarette tax quite differently,” he said.
The proposal is unlikely to be adopted this session, which will conclude on June 5. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has indicated he will not support raising taxes this year. On Wednesday, his spokesman Andrew Doba said Malloy’s opposition to new taxes includes any increase in the cigarette tax.
Doba said the proposal was more a public health issue than revenue issue.
“Increasing a sin tax generally leads to a decrease in consumption, so any gains would be mitigated by more people quitting, which is obviously a positive thing,” he said.
O’Flaherty said the poll found strong support for the proposal across party lines with 69 percent of Republicans and independents indicating they support it and 72 percent of Democrats.
O’Flaherty said that voters see the tax as the most preferred option for raising revenue as lawmakers struggle to craft a state budget for the next two years in an economic climate that will likely require painful cuts to some programs. The state is facing a budget shortfall of around $3 billion for the next two year.
Voters in the poll opposed other tax increases as well as funding cuts to hospitals and municipalities.
“Every week there are dozens of groups here in Hartford that are holding press conferences, talking to legislators and all of them are clamoring for important programs to be spared the budget axe in these difficult times,” O’Flaherty said, adding that many of those programs promote public health and save lives.
During the press conference, advocates pointed to statistics indicating that raising the taxes on cigarettes would also promote public health and save lives. According to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and the American Cancer Society, the increase in the cost of cigarettes would motivate more than 11,000 people to quit smoking, which could save $430 million in long-term medical costs.
“If we raise the tax on tobacco products, there is no doubt that we will see these numbers drop. The science is that clear,” Connie Dill, an American Lung Association volunteer said.
Several Democratic members of the House attended Wednesday’s event to support the proposal. Rep. Matt Lesser, D-Middletown, said he supported using taxation as a way to encourage people to quit smoking. He said one of his colleagues recently gave up cigarettes because they have become so heavily taxed.
“But the bottom line is, as we struggle with a budget deficit, the thing that’s breaking the bank in the state of Connecticut is the soaring cost of healthcare. Where are those costs coming from? To a huge extent, it’s coming from smoking-related diseases. So this is a win-win,” he said.
However, following an unrelated event Wednesday, House Speaker Brendan Sharkey said he felt the proposal was coming too “late in the game.”
“The Finance Committee has already done a lot of its work. Certainly, we’ll consider it but I’m not sure that that will necessarily have legs this year,” he said.
Sharkey said he also had concerns about raising taxes in any form this year.
“We have to be very careful this year about any proposal to raise taxes. That’s something I think we really have committed ourselves to not doing and I want to maintain that commitment to the extent possible,” he said.
Senate President Donald Williams said Democrats in the Senate have not yet talked about the proposal. He said the issue may come up before the end of the session.
“We’re trying to smoke out our other members on this,” he said.