Senate panel pushes increase in Georgia’s low tobacco tax

Georgia’s tobacco tax could more than triple under a late-in-the-game move in the state Senate.

The Senate Finance Committee voted 5-2 on Friday to amend a House resolution to raise the tax per pack of cigarettes to $1.35. Georgia now charges smokers 37 cents per pack, the third-lowest among the 50 states. The federal government charges an additional $1.01 in taxes on each pack of 20 cigarettes.

The full Senate will next consider the proposal.

The move also would impose state tobacco taxes on vaping products and electronic cigarettes for the first time, potentially bringing in $350 million a year or more in a year when Georgia lawmakers are considering $2.6 billion in budget cuts. However, its prospects are unclear among tax-adverse Republicans, especially in the House, where Speaker David Ralston has repeatedly signaled that he opposes any increase.

Sen. Randy Robertson, a Cataula Republican, told the committee that he favors the move because it will encourage people to smoke less. That, in turn would mean less smoking-related disease and lower costs for the state-federal Medicaid health insurance program.

“Only 18% of Georgians smoke but they account for a huge portion of the money that Georgians that are paying taxes are having to pay for, to treat those uninsured individuals who take up tobacco smoking,” said Robertson, who said his father died from lung cancer at age 56.

The committee chairman, Chuck Hufstetler, a Rome Republican, said he was for the bill for “one reason only,” reducing Medicaid spending by reducing smoking.

“The behavior change is maybe the most important thing,” Hufstetler said.

Anti-smoking advocates and those who support more revenue for state spending have been pushing for a higher tobacco tax for years. Some would like to see an even bigger boost.

“Lifting the tobacco tax to the national average of $1.81,” said Danny Kanso, a policy analyst for the liberal-leaning Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, “would increase funding for public health and smoking cessation while helping to advance the state’s economic recovery.”