The American Lung Association’s national report released Wednesday called on Georgia to increase its tax on a pack of cigarettes. At 37 cents, the levy is among the lowest in the country.
“Tobacco use is a serious addiction, and we need to invest in the proven measures to prevent and reduce tobacco use outlined in ‘State of Tobacco Control,’” said June Deen, senior director of advocacy for the Lung Association. “The report provides a road map on how to save lives, but much work remains to be done in communities across Georgia to prevent and reduce tobacco use.”
On the Georgia grades, she said, “it’s the same song, next verse for our state.”
The only non-failing grade that Georgia received was for the strength of its smoke-free workplace laws, where the state got a “D.”
The Peach State’s “Fs” were in funding for state tobacco prevention programs; the level of tobacco taxes; coverage and access to services to quit tobacco; and for not raising the minimum age of sale for tobacco products to 21.
The grades were similar to the Lung Association’s previous assessments of Georgia’s anti-tobacco work.
In the new report, no state earned an “A” grade in every category; the best states were Alaska, California, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Maine and Massachusetts. The states earning the worst grades (all F’s) were Mississippi, Missouri, Texas and Virginia.
Tobacco use remains the nation’s leading cause of preventable death and disease, taking an estimated 480,000 lives every year.
Nationally, the Lung Association report said adult and youth cigarette smoking rates are at an all-time low, with 7.6 percent of high school students and 14 percent of adults smoking cigarettes.
At the same time, though, there has been a 78 percent rise in youth e-cigarette use from 2017 to 2018. This equals 1 million additional kids beginning to use e-cigarettes, “placing their developing bodies and lungs at risk from the chemicals in e-cigarettes as well as a lifetime of addiction to a deadly product,” the report said.
“It’s an alarming increase — and we’re seeing the increase in Georgia, too,” Deen told GHN. “We’ve got to begin addressing these issues.”
The adult smoking rate in Georgia is 17.5 percent, above the national average. The youth smoking rate is also higher than the U.S. mark, at 8.2 percent.
Tobacco causes more than 11,600 deaths in Georgia annually, and its direct healthcare costs in the state amount to more than $3 billion a year.
Raising the tobacco tax in Georgia has often surfaced as an issue at the Georgia General Assembly.
Georgia ranks 49th compared to other states plus the District of Columbia in the amount of taxes levied on cigarettes. The national state average is $1.78 per pack as of October 2018.
Multiple studies have shown that every 10 percent increase in the price of cigarettes reduces consumption by about 4 percent among adults and about 7 percent among youth, the Lung Association report said.
Sen. Chuck Hufstetler, a Rome Republican, recently told the Rome News-Tribune that he supports legislation similar to a bill last year that would have raised the tax on a pack of cigarettes from 37 cents to $1.87.
Last year’s bill, introduced by Rep. Ron Stephens, a Savannah Republican, also would have hiked the tax on cigars, cigarillos and smokeless tobacco. Hufstetler wants to include vaping, the News-Tribune reported.
Georgia could raise more than $400 million a year to make investments for the health and well-being of Georgia residents by raising the cigarette tax by at least $1 per pack, says the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute.
But there are political critics of such a move and of any tax increase.
Georgia House Speaker David Ralston, when asked about a possible tax hike, recently noted that adult smoking rates have declined in the U.S.
“I’m always hesitant to suggest raising taxes in any event,” including for tobacco use, he added.
Deen of the Lung Association said Georgia should have more funding and coverage for quit-smoking treatments. The state Department of Public Health does a good job with its quit tobacco phone counseling, Deen said, “but they could do a lot better job with more dollars.”
Among positive news the Lung Association report cited was in smoke-free laws in Georgia. Augusta passed a smoke-free ordinance in June 2018, and Canton expanded its smoke-free ordinance to prohibit smoking in public areas in its downtown district. Work began in Atlanta and Rome on comprehensive smoke-free air ordinances in the winter of 2018.
The state has pointed out that 129 out of 181 school districts in Georgia have tobacco-free policies.
Georgia Health News, a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization, tracks state medical issues on its website georgiahealthnews.com.