COLUMBIA - As House members prepared for next week's debate on the $5.1 billion state budget bill, a group of about 100 people gathered at the Statehouse on Wednesday to implore lawmakers to raise the state's cigarette tax.
Representatives from the American Cancer Society called on the General Assembly to raise the tax on cigarettes by 68 cents to 75 cents total. That increase could generate $268 million in revenue that could be devoted to Medicaid expenses, said Peggy Baxter of the Greenville American Cancer Society.
The state's cigarette tax is one of the lowest in the nation.
Advocates for greater Medicaid funding say the current budget fails to cover about $95 million in needs for the health care program for the poor.
An increase in the cigarette tax faces strong opposition in the General Assembly and has not received the endorsement of Republican Gov. Mark Sanford, who has said that any tax increase would have to be tied to a decrease in another tax.
Many lawmakers say they would rather reform the Medicaid program than add money to it.
But the Cancer Society members said Wednesday that an increase in the cigarette tax would have a twofold benefit: There would be more money for Medicaid benefits and fewer smokers needing health care often provided by Medicaid and Medicare programs.
If the cigarette tax were raised to 75 cents a pack, 43,900 fewer South Carolina teens would smoke, said cancer survivor and American Cancer Society volunteer Craig King.
Health problems caused by tobacco use put a strain on the health system, said Dr. Oscar Lovelace, a Prosperity physician and the chairman of Mr. Sanford's task force on health care.
"The impact of tobacco on our society must be shifted from society to the user," he said.
Twenty percent of every dollar spent on health care in the United States is spent to treat tobacco-related illness, Dr. Lovelace said. Half of that is paid out through Medicare and Medicaid, he said.
In South Carolina, Medicaid spent $307 million last year treating tobacco-related illnesses, according to the American Cancer Society.