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Advocates Make Last Push For Kansas Tobacco Tax

Andy Marso
Heartland Health Monitor

Advocates of raising Kansas’ tobacco tax made one last push Monday during a rally at the Statehouse, with a prominent physician saying cancer will overwhelm the state’s health care system if the tax isn’t raised.

Legislators will look this week at options for raising $400 million to $500 millionto close a budget gapand end the 2015 session.

Gov. Sam Brownback’s proposal to bring in almost $100 million by raising the tax on cigarettes and other tobacco products had little support early in the session but appears to be back in play — along with a host of other tax options.

Dr. Roy Jensen, director of the University of Kansas Cancer Center, said the tobacco tax has an advantage over the others: It is projected to prevent 15,000 premature deaths due to tobacco-related illness.

“People tried to cast this initiative solely as a budget Band-Aid,” Jensen said. “I would like to march 15,000 people into this Capitol and show them this is not just a budget Band-Aid. This is, I think, the one initiative that is before the Legislature this year that shows vision, that shows forethought, that shows we are working as a state to improve the health of people of the state of Kansas.”

During the rally, Jensen said it’s critical for Kansas to begin to reduce its tobacco use rate immediately.

Jensen said almost one-third of the 6,200 cases of cancer his hospital treats annually can be directly attributed to tobacco use. Reducing tobacco use is the clearest route to reducing cancer, he said, and if no action is taken, the state’s health care system will be overwhelmed as rates of cancer from all causes increase as the baby boomer generation ages.

Jensen said the state should expect a 45 percent increase in cancer cases between now and 2030.

“We don’t have the resources, we don’t have the facilities and we don’t have the manpower to deal with this,” he said. “And I’m talking collectively across the state.”

At the beginning of the session, the governor proposed a $1.50-per-pack increase in the cigarette tax and a 25 percent increase on smokeless tobacco products. The proposals have been stalled for months.

Some 10 legislators were on hand for Monday’s rally, including a pair of House members who said they’re frustrated that they won’t get to vote on the tobacco tax alone.

“The (news) conference today highlights everything I believe about it,” said Rep. Melissa Rooker, a Republican from Fairway. “But if it comes wrapped up in the middle of a package that otherwise I can’t support, I’m not going to commit to voting based on one element.”

Rep. Barbara Bollier, a Republican from Mission Hills, agreed. “This needs to be separate,” she said.

Instead, the House is likely to get a “mega” tax bill formed and passed by the Senate and be forced to take an up-or-down vote on it.

Sen. Les Donovan, a Republican from Wichita who chairs the tax committee, said last week that if the governor’s proposal can’t get enough votes there to pass, he has prepared amendments for lesser tobacco tax increases.

Jodi Radke, director of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids’ Rocky Mountain/Great Plains Region, said her organization thinks the governor’s tobacco tax proposal does the most good for Kansans’ health, and the budget crisis offers a window for getting it done.

“The higher amount obviously yields the greatest benefit — not in terms of revenue, but reduction of youth use rates,” Radke said. “We know in years to come the likelihood of revisiting this conversation once it happens is pretty marginal.”

Andy Marso is a reporter for KHI News Service in Topeka, a partner in the Heartland Health Monitor team.

Andy Marso is a reporter for KCUR 89.3 and the Kansas News Service based in Topeka.
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