Government Rejects Higher Cigarette Tax
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The federal government has rejected a plan that would raise the federal cigarette tax by $2 a pack to fund programs that would help smokers quit, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said on Wednesday.
The plan, approved by the Health and Human Services' Interagency Committee on Smoking and Health, would have set aside half the money raised for initiatives to help people stop smoking.
But Thompson said the idea of raising the tax from the current 39 cents went against the basic philosophy of the administration of President Bush, which is both against raising taxes and pro-big business.
"We are not contemplating it. This administration does not raise taxes," Thompson told a hearing of the House Budget Committee.
HHS spokesman Bill Pierce said the department had never considered the idea of the tax, despite the committee's recommendation. "The secretary, in response to that recommendation, said we are not contemplating it," Pierce said in a telephone interview.
Anti-tobacco campaigners who had welcomed the committee's recommendation expressed disappointment.
"Special interest politicians have won out over a sound scientific proposal that would save millions of lives," William Corr, executive vice president at the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said in a telephone interview.
Corr said cigarette taxes should be an exception to the administration's anti-tax ideology.
"Governors of all political parties, Republican, Democrat and independent, have raised their state excise taxes in 2002 and many are again proposing increases in 2003 because they are good health policy, reducing those who smoke and saving lives," Corr said.
POLLS SHOW SUPPORT FOR A TAX
Corr said his group commissioned a poll last October that found 60 percent of Americans support a $2 a pack increase. The telephone poll of 1,000 adults, done by Market Facts' TeleNation, was submitted to the smoking and health committee.
Health experts say smoking is the biggest single cause of preventable death, killing 400,000 people every year from heart disease and cancer.
Thompson suggested last week he may look at other ways to pay for anti-smoking efforts.
"I think the general premise of setting up some sort of fund to give dollars back to people who want to quit smoking is good," he told reporters, adding that 70 percent of smokers wanted to quit but could not get the support, including drugs, to do so.
Several studies have shown that raising the price of cigarettes can deter smokers, especially teen-agers. But such a tax would not easily pass Congress.
In a related development on Wednesday, three prominent U.S. Democrats who have been critics of the tobacco industry made public a letter that they said showed U.S. officials had asked Saudi Arabia for help in weakening global tobacco talks winding down in Geneva this week.
The Feb. 8 letter was sent from the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh shortly before the World Health Organization members began talks on a global anti-smoking treaty.
Several U.S. health advocacy groups, including the American Cancer Society and the American Heart Association, have accused the United States of being the prime obstacle to a strong global treaty against smoking.