Anti-smoking forces push higher cigarette tax to solve state’s budget woes

With shrinking revenues complicating state budget talks, anti-smoking advocates pitched a nearly 30 percent hike in the cigarette tax Wednesday as an increase most voters would welcome.

Key state officials responded warily to the 95-cents-per-pack hike proposal, and Connecticut’s grocery stores argued it would harm retail sales in a vulnerable economy.

“The answers are loud and clear from Connecticut residents,” said Kevin O’Flaherty, director of advocacy for the Northeast division of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. “Voters support raising cigarette taxes. Doing so will prevent kids from smoking and encourage adult smokers to quit.”

Research shows that every time cigarette taxes grow by at least 10 percent, the adult smoking population declines by 3 percent, and youth smoking falls 6-7 percent, O’Flaherty said.

His group joined with the American Lung, Heart and Stroke associations and the Cancer Action Network to unveil a poll showing 70 percent of voters here back a 95-cents-per-pack increase. A May 2007 poll by Quinnipiac University found similar results, with 68 percent of those surveyed backing a proposal at that time to add 49 cents to the cigarette tax.

Raising Connecticut’s cigarette tax from $3.40 to $4.35 per pack would prompt an estimated 11,500 children to avoid smoking and more than 11,000 adults to quit, the group argued.

“More than 1,200 Connecticut residents die each year from tobacco-caused respiratory disease,” said Connie Dill, a respiratory therapist at the Hospital for Special Care in New Britain and a lung association volunteer. “Raising the tobacco tax will not just save lives. It will improve life quality for many.”

Dill added that the economic stakes in the battle to reduce the smoking population are huge.

The state spends about $430 million per year through various Medicaid-funded programs treating smoking-related illnesses and conditions.

The coalition, which announced its proposal Wednesday morning in the Legislative Office Building, was joined by Democratic Reps. Matthew Lesser of Middletown, Elaine O’Brien of Windsor Locks and James Albis of East Haven.

The association estimates a 95-cent tax increase would pump an extra $51 million into the state’s coffers next fiscal year, and Lesser said that at least would mitigate tobacco-related medical expenses “that are breaking the bank” across Connecticut.

But the leader of an association representing about 240 Connecticut grocery stores said the proposal would harm the economy far more than it would bolster the state’s coffers.

“When the price goes up, your sales go down, which in today’s economic climate does not speak well for retail sales,” said Stanley Sorkin, president of the Connecticut Food Association.

Anti-smoking advocates said solving the state budget debate isn’t their primary goal. But if that’s what it takes to bolster cigarette taxes, then they will pitch the hike as a fiscal solution as well.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and his fellow Democrats in the Legislature’s majority, who are trying to negotiate a final budget for the next two fiscal years, found their efforts complicated two weeks ago. State analysts reduced revenue expectations by $259 million for the fiscal year that begins July 1, and by another $229 million in 2014-15.

Malloy has said he won’t raise taxes in his new budget, and top Democratic leaders have backed his position.

Malloy’s office restated the administration’s position Wednesday. “The governor has said from the beginning that he does not support increasing taxes,” spokesman Andrew Doba said.

But the spokesman may have left a window open for negotiations on the cigarette tax when he added, “this proposal is more of a public health issue than a revenue issue.”

“Increasing a sin tax generally leads to a decrease in consumption,” he said, noting that any tax gains by the state “would be mitigated by more people quitting, which is obviously a positive thing.”

House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, showed little support for the cigarette tax hike, that comes with three weeks left before the 2013 session ends on June 5.

“I think it is coming a little bit late in the game, frankly,” he said. “… The finance committee has already done a lot of its work. Certainly we’ll consider it but I’m not sure that will necessarily have legs this year,” he told reporters at the state Capitol complex Wednesday.

Sharkey  added that he is committed to passing a budget without increased taxes. “That is something we have really committed ourselves to not doing and I want to maintain that commitment to the extent possible,” he said. “I think we are completely aligned with the [Malloy] administration that we do not want to raise taxes.”

Senate President Pro Tem Donald Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, was noncommittal  on the 95-cent increase. “It remains to be seen. We haven’t had a chance to talk about that,” he said.

Asked if new tax revenue needs to be on the table, he said it remains an option for him.