Editorial: Kansas should make it more expensive to smoke

Tobacco taxes in Kansas are still too low, the Star’s editorial board believes.
Tobacco taxes in Kansas are still too low, the Star’s editorial board believes. AP Photo

Kansas lawmakers are still discussing ways to close a two-year, $1 billion budget gap. They need to come up with a plan quickly: They reconvene May 1 for what’s expected to be a long and difficult veto session.

Before adjourning their regular meeting, legislators correctly rejected Gov. Sam Brownback’s half-baked budget ideas. They crushed a flat income tax, which would have disproportionately hurt the poor.

They nearly enacted their own plan to restore state income taxes for business owners. They firmly rejected Brownback’s original budget proposals.

Out of that smoldering ruin, however, lawmakers can extract one Brownback idea that still has merit: an increase in the state’s tobacco tax.

The governor’s original plan called for raising the state’s cigarette tax by $1 a pack and increasing other taxes on tobacco products. Over two years, those tobacco tax hikes would bring in about $102 million, putting an important dent in the budget gap.

Even better, an increase in the tobacco tax would reduce smoking in Kansas, providing clear benefits in a state where health and health care costs are an issue. In January, a broad coalition of health organizations made just that point.

“Significantly raising the price of tobacco decreases the number of youth who start smoking, increases the number of smokers who quit, cuts health care costs, and reduces deaths from lung and other cancers, heart attacks, strokes and other preventable diseases,” the coalition said.

At the start of 2017, the Kansas cigarette tax — $1.29 a pack — was the 32nd highest in the nation.

Vendors in the Kansas City area have opposed an increase in tobacco taxes, arguing any hike would chase customers into Missouri. Shamefully, the cigarette tax in Missouri is just 17 cents per pack, the lowest in the nation.

But it’s likely that price-sensitive tobacco customers are already making that trip across the state line. It’s hard to imagine much more erosion in tobacco sales if Kansas bumps the tax up again.

We’re sensitive to the idea that higher cigarette taxes are a burden on lower-income Kansans, who tend to smoke more. Lawmakers might consider phasing in a cigarette tax increase to lessen the sticker shock, while still encouraging smokers to give up their habit.

But the goal is clear: Kansas should make it more expensive to smoke.

We harbor no illusions that an increase would solve the Kansas budget mess. There are tough choices to be made on tax policy and spending. There’s no way around that.

But raising the tobacco tax is a relatively easy step. Lawmakers should take it.