Our Views: Higher taxes on cigarettes

In the administration of Gov. Bobby Jindal, now is the best time to see a meaningful increase in Louisiana’s low tax on cigarettes.

We urge lawmakers and the governor to back a meaningful increase, on the order of $1 a pack more for cigarettes, among the several bills pushing tax increases on cigarettes and tobacco products.

The amount is important.

A higher tax would be more effective at curbing teen smoking, the beginning of an addictive habit with profound health impacts — not to mention future costs in health care, often borne by the taxpayer.

If the amount of the increase is important, so is the issue of a “clean” bill. Backers of the tax might want to dedicate the new revenue to specific programs, a way of wooing votes for the measure in the Legislature.

Many of the state’s budget problems come from the practice of dedicating pots of money, so that the governor and Legislature don’t have flexibility in the budget. Spreading new revenue around in little pots here and there is a chronic problem in state government.

Basically, though, any new revenue in a clean bill is apt to fill holes in funding for health care and higher education. So a specific dedication has a political use but is really unnecessary.

Finally, there is the problem of the governor’s past refusal to sanction a cigarette tax increase. Jindal actually proposed an increase earlier this year on par the rate in Texas, about $1 per pack of cigarettes more than Louisiana’s current 36 cents. However, Jindal only couched his support in terms of balancing out revenues and cuts in his failed tax changes.

We find it difficult to understand why a governor would not follow the lead of his colleagues in statehouses around America in raising tobacco levies. It is more difficult to understand when our governor has a background in health policy.

While there certainly would be a use for any new revenues raised by a cigarette tax increase, its public health benefits are undeniable and important.

We hope that the governor and lawmakers will see this is a pragmatic decision that is only secondarily a revenue issue.