As legislators and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy grapple with the unpleasant prospect of raising taxes, anti-smoking forces insist state officials are overlooking the only tax hike that yields huge benefits — and almost no public backlash.

Boosting the cigarette tax by $1.50 per pack — from $3.40 to $4.90 — would yield more than $60 million annually while driving tens of thousands of state residents away from tobacco, according to the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association, the American Lung Association and the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

Furthermore, advocates note, voters have supported higher cigarette taxes by huge margins for more than a decade.

“Name another tax increase that is actually going to save lives,” said Bryte Johnson, director of government relations for the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network.

According to the network, a $1.50-per-pack tax increase would lead about 16,000 Connecticut adults to quit smoking — an accomplishment that shouldn’t be downplayed, Johnson said.

Research has found an estimated 70 percent of smokers nationally will announce their intention to quit each year, he said. Of that group, only 40 percent actually will try, and just 5 percent of that subset will be successful.

That translates into just 1.4 smokers successfully quitting for every 100 that announce plans to do so.

Equally important, Johnson said, higher taxes will lead another 13,000 Connecticut teens either to quit or to abandon early efforts to take up the smoking habit.

“These are not the old-school, die-hard smokers,” he said. “These are kids. Reaching them, in and of itself, is huge.”

If those numbers aren’t enticing, anti-smoking advocates say, the estimated revenue increase of more than $60 million per year should be. With lawmakers scrambling to restore deep cuts Malloy proposed in social service programs, or to mitigate other tax hikes the governor put on the table, could a cigarette tax increase be part of the solution?

Rep. Jeffrey Berger, D-Waterbury, co-chairman of the tax-writing, Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee, said he personally isn’t enamored with another cigarette tax hike.

The committee is looking for options to scale back some corporation tax hikes proposed by the governor. But Berger said he fears there is a group of older, die-hard smokers — particularly from low-income households — who can’t quit and are simply spending money they can’t afford on cigarette taxes.

“I’m somewhat concerned that we keep raising and raising the price of cigarettes,” Berger said.

Connecticut does have a tendency to raise cigarette taxes in bunches.

The state tax stood at 50 cents per pack from the mid-1990s through the early 2000s. It then was tripled with two hikes just 11 months apart, reaching $1.51 in March 2003.

Three more increases between July 2007 and July 2011 more than doubled the tax again, raising it to its current level of $3.40 per pack.

Berger added that he would be willing to consider a surcharge on electronic cigarettes to discourage potential smokers from starting.

But Johnson said there are better options to reach those die-hard smokers.

Anti-tobacco forces long have complained that Connecticut spends too little on cessation programs. And the governor’s budget proposal for the next two fiscal years would claim the remaining $12 million normally dedicated annually to a tobacco fund that could be used to combat smoking.

The average Connecticut smoker of one pack per day spends about $3,000 annually on that habit. Helping poor addicts kick smoking not only would improve health, but would give many households an economic shot in the arm of $3,000 per year or more, Johnson said.

“This is just one more reason we need a robust cessation program in place,” he said.

If those reasons aren’t compelling enough, anti-smoking advocates add, the political numbers should be.

The last Quinnipiac University poll on cigarette taxes, taken in March 2011, just before the last increase was enacted, found 72 percent of voters favored it, with just 26 percent opposed.

More than two-thirds of Democrats, Republicans and unaffiliated voters all backed the increase.

Quinnipiac polls in 2007 and 2002 found similar results, with 68 percent of voters backing an increase eight years ago and 71 percent doing so in 2002.

Keith has spent most of his 31 years as a reporter specializing in state government finances, analyzing such topics as income tax equity, waste in government and the complex funding systems behind Connecticut’s transportation and social services networks. He has been the state finances reporter at CT Mirror since it launched in 2010. Prior to joining CT Mirror Keith was State Capitol bureau chief for The Journal Inquirer of Manchester, a reporter for the Day of New London, and a former contributing writer to The New York Times. Keith is a graduate of and a former journalism instructor at the University of Connecticut.

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