Our Views: Lobbying first, health second

A combination of convenience store owners, tobacco company lobbyists and Gov. Bobby Jindal for the moment stands in the way of a sensible increase in Louisiana taxes on cigarettes and other tobacco products.

The sponsors of bills to increase the tax pulled their measures from the agenda of the House Ways and Means Committee. Those not pulled down were killed outright by the committee. While not yet dead for the legislative session, it’s pretty clear that unless something dramatic happens, a tobacco tax increase is not likely to advance.

What a sad outcome.

The committee heard from many experts and public-spirited groups about the ravages of cancer and the effectiveness of cigarette tax increases in preventing young people, in particular, from taking up a potentially deadly habit.

Of course, there is opposition. No one likes paying taxes, although in public relations terms the convenience store owners are a front for the legendary behind-the-scenes lobbying of Big Tobacco.

But of those opposing the increase, the least-defensible is the governor’s veto threat against any potential increase. As a former public health official, the governor should be aware of the high costs to the taxpayer of treatment of cancer. Jindal seems oblivious to the national consensus on this issue: State after state has raised cigarette taxes or other tobacco taxes to make smoking unattractive for teens.

Nor is there any principled fiscal reason to oppose an increase. The state budget under Jindal has become a mishmash of one-time money, borrowing from various special funds, property sales and other “contingent” sources of revenue.

A tobacco tax on the level of Texas’ rates would give the state some more money, but it is not the solution to the structural problems of Jindal’s budget. Still, some more general fund revenues are preferable to the near-certainty of midyear budget cuts coming under the Jindal budget proposal.

All in all, neither House committee members nor Jindal has anything to be proud of on this issue.