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Cigarette tax hike could fund Arkansas trauma system

This article was published August 11, 2008 at 5:19 p.m.

Lawmakers next year will likely consider raising Arkansas' cigarette tax by around 50 cents a pack to fund a proposed statewide trauma system, a state lawmaker said Monday.

State Rep. Gene Shelby, D-Hot Springs, who proposed a cigarette tax increase that failed during the 2007 legislative session, said he has spoken with the governor's office and other lawmakers about bringing up the issue next year. Paul Halverson, director of the Arkansas Department of Health, also said he has proposed to Gov. Mike Beebe that the tax be raised as a way to cut the state's smoking rate.

However, that could be a difficult task as Beebe and lawmakers face pressure to further cut the state's grocery tax in a legislative session before an election year. State budget officials say raising the cigarette tax would take a three-fourths vote of both the 100-member House and 35-member Senate. In 2007, Shelby's proposal never made it out of a skeptical House committee, which said the tax would hurt the poor.

"That's what we're kind of looking at it because there's no need of doing this if it doesn't have a chance of passing," Shelby said.

Matt DeCample, a spokesman for Beebe, said the governor's office has had meetings discussing the possibility of raising the per-pack tax on cigarettes. However, the governor, himself an occasional smoker, has yet to endorse the idea, DeCample said.

"The governor has left the possibility open," DeCample said. "We don't have our own proposal or are supporting any other specific proposal. It's early."

Still, lawmakers and other state government officials have asked for new estimates on how much money would be raised by boosting the current 59-cent-per-pack tax. A 50-cent increase would raise about $71.1 million, said George Foy of the state Department of Finance and Administration. A 75-cent raise would bring in $96.3 million, while adding a dollar would bring in $114.7 million, Foy said.

Lawmakers were unable to agree on a funding source for a trauma system during the 2007 session. Arkansas remains one of only a handful of states without a trauma system - a unified network of hospitals that can route victims of car crashes, electrocutions and other serious injuries quickly to specialists. Earlier estimates put the annual cost of fully funding a trauma system at $25 million.

Beebe recently offered $200,000 from the governor's emergency fund to pay for a database on specialist staffing at hospitals and to bring in consultants to suggest how to build a trauma system.

Shelby, an emergency room doctor, said any additional money raised by the cigarette tax could go to community health centers and charitable clinics serving the state's poor. However, he acknowledged the trauma system funding would be the most important part of the hike.

"I think it is a big priority of a lot of people, including the governor," he said. "To fund it properly, it's going to take a big chunk."

The governor's office typically releases its proposed two-year budget in the fall. DeCample said all discussions about potentially raising the cigarette tax came from those sessions.

"The key linchpin for a statewide trauma system will be funding," he said.

However, Halverson and others at the state Health Department said raising the tax on cigarettes would have another impact - further cutting the number of people lighting up. The department released the results of three different studies Monday, showing that the state had 84,000 fewer smokers in 2007 than five years earlier.

Since 2002, the percentage of adults who smoked dropped from 26.3 percent to 22.4 percent, according to the studies.

Halverson said those drops would continue as the effect of a 2006 law banning smoking in workplaces takes hold. However, he said raising the per-pack tax would help price smokers out of the habit.

"Taxes are an important policy driver," Halverson told reporters at a news conference. "From a public health perspective, the higher the price, ... the more we'll see reduction in access, particularly to youth."

For more information see Tuesday's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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