Legislators backing off cigarette tax increases

Advocate staff photo by ADAM LAU -- State Rep. Harold Ritchie, D-Bogalusa, attempted to increase the tax on cigarettes. He voluntarily withdrew the legislation Monday in the face of much opposition before the House Ways and Means Committee.
Advocate staff photo by ADAM LAU -- State Rep. Harold Ritchie, D-Bogalusa, attempted to increase the tax on cigarettes. He voluntarily withdrew the legislation Monday in the face of much opposition before the House Ways and Means Committee.

Governor’s veto looms; lawmakers fight for bill

State Rep. Harold Ritchie tried to convince legislators to back a state tobacco tax increase Monday with testimony from health experts, a religious leader and a daughter who watched her mother die from smoking.

Critics countered that an increase in the 32-cent state tax on a pack of cigarettes would cripple convenience stores. The governor also threatened to veto the cigarette tax increase.

An hour into debate on House Bill 417, Ritchie faced the Louisiana House Ways and Means Committee, attempted to tally the votes in his head and voluntarily pulled his bill.

“I didn’t know where I was other than on the losing side,” the Bogalusa Democrat said afterward.

Weeks ago, Gov. Bobby Jindal backed a cigarette tax increase when it was part of his broader effort to eliminate the state’s personal income and corporate taxes. He later dropped his package and said he would veto any tobacco tax increase that was not tied to lowering other taxes.

The House Committee on Ways and Means devoted its agenda Monday to various proposals for increasing the 32-cent state tax on a pack of cigarettes.

Ritchie was the first one up with his legislation for a $1.05 increase.

After he voluntarily deferred his bill, state Rep. Kirk Talbot, R-River Ridge, sent a text message shelving, at least temporarily, his bid to raise the cigarette tax to 60 cents a pack.

State Rep. Katrina Jackson, D-Monroe, pushed her two tobacco tax proposals to another day.

Two years ago, Ritchie tried to increase the state cigarette tax by 70 cents per pack. A heavy smoker, Ritchie brought bottles of medication to show the committee the negative impact cigarettes have on his health. He deferred the proposal after the Jindal administration made the governor’s opposition clear.

“I didn’t bring all my medication as I have in the past,” Ritchie told legislators Monday.

Instead, he touted the tax increase as a way to combat the position of tobacco as the leading cause of death in Louisiana.

Amber Stevens, of Metairie, pleaded with legislators to back the increase. Stevens told the committee that her mother could not give up smoking even after she was stricken with cancer.

“I watched her smoke until the day she entered the hospital and died of cancer. ... We need to stop our children from ever picking up that first cigarette,” Stevens said.

Dan Krutz, executive director of the Louisiana Interchurch Conference, characterized the tax increase as a way to put the common good ahead of private interests.

Ashley G. Politz, executive director of the Louisiana chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said children of smokers suffer from increased ear infections and upper respiratory infections. Even parents who smoke outside carry carcinogens on their clothing, she said.

A high enough tax would convince people to quit or not to start smoking, Politz said.

“Eventually, there will be no need for the tax,” she said. “At least that’s the hope, right?”

Jack Casanova, with Church Point Wholesale, said a tax increase could spark an underground market with cigarettes pouring in from states with lower taxes.

Church Point Wholesale is a tobacco-products wholesaler. Casanova said a pack of cigarettes costs $10 in New York City, resulting in the majority of smokers buying their tobacco from other states.

“Industrywise, we cannot continue sustaining tax increases,” said Darrell Amar Jr. with the Louisiana Oil Marketers and Convenience Store Association Proponents

Amar said stores would close because smokers would have less money to spend on food, candy, lottery tickets, soda and water as their disposable income shrinks.

“Nothing good will come of higher taxes,” he said.

State Rep. Chris Broadwater, R-Hammond, expressed concerns that an increase eventually would reach a tipping point in which a black market is created.

Broadwater asked for the research on a $1.05 increase in the cigarette tax.

Andrew Muhl, government relations director for the American Cancer Society of Louisiana, told him the research was in his committee packet.

After the meeting, Ritchie said the governor’s veto threat did not help his legislation.

“The governor puts that in their mind every day, ‘I’ll veto it. I’ll veto it,’” he said.