Smokers stock up to beat tax increase

Wednesday, June 1, 2005

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- A sign taped to the door of a cigarette shop urged smokers to "Beat the Tax." Customers took the advice Tuesday, loading up on their favorite smokes just hours before tobacco-rich Kentucky's first cigarette tax increase in a generation.

Kentucky's 3-cent-per-pack cigarette tax, lowest in the nation, goes to 30 cents starting today.

Even with the higher tax, Kentucky's rate is below the rates in neighboring Indiana, Ohio, Illinois and West Virginia. But in Tennessee, the current rate is 20 cents. That lower levy worries Kentucky retailers along the states' common border.

"It's going to be bad," said Pat Smith, owner of The Tobacco Barn in Fulton in far southwestern Kentucky. "I think it's going to hurt us."

For public health advocates, Wednesday fulfills a long-sought goal of raising the cigarette tax in a state where smoking is a way of life for a large chunk of the population. For years, the proposal was a nonstarter in the state General Assembly.

"It is ushering in a new era when it comes to public health in this state," said Mike Kuntz, spokesman for the American Lung Association of Kentucky. "It's a real recognition of the dangers of tobacco use."

Kuntz said health activists eventually would like to see the state's cigarette tax rate raised to close to $1 per pack.

But he said the 27-cent increase should lower smoking rates, especially among youngsters. Kentucky has the nation's highest adult smoking rate at nearly 31 percent, according to a report last year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Another federal report last year said Kentucky has the nation's highest lung-cancer death rate among men, and a higher-than-average death rate among women.

One penny of the 27-cent increase will go for cancer research at the universities of Kentucky and Louisville.

Linda Strange, a smoker from Jeffersonville, Ind., said the higher tax would hurt one of Kentucky's signature sectors. The Bluegrass State is the nation's top producer of burley tobacco, an ingredient in cigarettes.

"They're hurting the farmers," said Strange, who stocked up with 10 cartons of cigarettes for herself and three co-workers.

But other smokers took the tax increase in stride.

Donna Watts, of Fulton County, said she didn't stock up on cigarettes.

"I'm going to have to pay it, what difference does it make if I pay it this week, or next week or the next," she said.

But she doubts whether the higher rate will put a dent in smoking rates. "I think people who smoke are probably going to pay whatever it may be," she said.

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