Cigarette tax advocates keep pushing despite deadline

ATLANTA --- Groups calling for a $1 increase in the cigarette tax announced Wednesday that they had gathered more than 1,000 signatures on an online petition in 48 hours.

Representatives of the groups delivered printouts of the signatures to the governor's office, but a spokesman for Gov. Nathan Deal said they didn't change the governor's opposition to tax increases.

The groups, which include the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association, the American Lung Association and the retiree group AARP, remain determined even though the deadline passed a week earlier for the legislation to remain viable.

"This is an ongoing problem. If we don't get it this year, we're going to keep advocating for this," said Eric Bailey, a representative for the American Cancer Society.

Doctors who treat smoking-related illnesses were at the groups' news conference at the Capitol to express frustration with legislators' reluctance to boost the tax high enough to discourage teenagers from picking up the smoking habit.

"The real tragedy for me, the real crime, is that there are proven policies that we know will not only reduce smoking in adults but also reduce the likelihood of kids beginning to smoke and then becoming lifelong smokers as adults," said Dr. Harry Heiman, a professor at Morehouse School of Medicine. "That's important because we know that half of the children that start smoking before age 18 will die of tobacco-related illnesses."

To retailers who worry a higher tax will cost them to lose business, he was unsympathetic.

"My response to them, as a physician and someone engaged in public health in Georgia, is, candidly, too bad," he said. "It's the same as my response to drug dealers in our neighborhoods and those pushing for payday loans."

Legislation that would raise the tax is pending in the House but for less than the $1 per pack the groups want. The legislation is part of a sweeping package stemming from recommendations from a council on ways to reform the tax code to lower personal and corporate income taxes while raising various sales taxes. That legislation is stalled until next year, partly because of public reaction to the package's added taxes on groceries and services.

Heiman said the medical groups weren't concerned about the procedures of the General Assembly that essentially make it impossible to pass a higher cigarette tax this year.

"Our responsibility isn't dictated by the legislative calendar," he said.

More