Alaska Mulls Huge Tax To Cut Teen Smoking

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

In the war on smoking, some states prefer taking the tobacco industry to court. Alaska is considering a blunter weapon: taxes.

A proposal to add $1 to the current 29-cent-a-pack levy would give Alaska the highest tobacco tax by far and has remarkable support in a state that ranks second in the nation in adult smoking. The tax has been championed by everyone from the Democratic governor to former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop. But its passage is hardly guaranteed in a Republican-led statehouse where GOP leaders are sticking to a pledge of "No new taxes."

The idea of a huge tobacco tax, some 50 times higher than the two- and three-penny levies charged in Virginia and Kentucky, was originally introduced this year as part of a long-term plan to plug the fiscal gap left by dwindling oil revenues.

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A bipartisan panel recommended hikes in the state's motor fuel and alcohol taxes as well, along with the eventual return of the personal-income tax that was repealed in 1980 when Alaska was flush with new oil money.

But the tobacco tax picked up momentum as a way to curb a rise in teenage smoking. Studies show that if cigarette prices are increased by 10 percent, the rate of consumption of cigarettes among teens is likely to decline by up to 12 percent. The Journal of the American Medical Association estimated that doubling current cigarette taxes would reduce the number of teen smokers by 800,000.

"I think it's a responsible public policy to discourage public smoking everywhere," says Gov. Tony Knowles, who as mayor of Anchorage in the 1980s made his city the first in the nation to ban smoking in all public buildings.

"The scene that you see now all across the country of people having to go outside the building to smoke first happened in Anchorage," says Mr. Knowles, himself a former smoker. "And I got some cold stares from municipal workers as I walked into [city hall] in the wintertime as they were forced to stand outside."

Although the fuel and alcohol taxes were neglected in this session, the tobacco tax picked up a momentum that eclipsed financial concerns. The Senate passed the tobacco tax on Tuesday in a 17-to-3 vote. While the House leaders kept the measure from reaching the floor before the end of its session on May 7, the governor called a special session to force a vote.

This has proved embarrassing for the Legislature's Republican majority, which last year unveiled an antitax "Commitment to Alaska." House Speaker Gail Phillips (R) of Homer has defended her efforts to stall the tobacco tax, saying, "I learned a very good lesson from George Bush. A very good lesson."

Yet stalling the vote in the House just pushed the debate out into the street. Activist Ruth Parriott of the American Cancer Society, gave the capital city of Juneau a cartoonish respite, as she dressed up as the Doonesbury character, Mr. Butts.

"No new taxes! No new taxes, you crazy Alaskans!" taunted Ms. Parriott in her white, full-body cigarette costume, leading a line of students through the capitol building. "We can't have expensive cigarettes! These kids can't afford it!"

Despite their antitax platform, Republicans are hardly united in opposition to the tax hike. One enthusiastic backer is Rep. Con Bunde, an Anchorage Republican who sponsored the tax bill.

Some Republicans say the only thing wrong with the tax hike is its timing. "I think next year it will go," says State Rep. Jeannette James, a North Pole Republican who stalled the bill in her committee. But for this year, at least, Ms. James derides the bill as "social engineering." "I am strong on freedom. It's a legal substance and people choose to do it, and it is punitive to raise the taxes," she says.

As for teenage smokers near Juneau's busy waterfront, they winced at the idea of a $1-a-pack tax hike.

"If they're going to tax something, tax liquor," says Matt Deach, sitting at a cafe on a recent Saturday morning. "Nobody ever died of driving and smoking a cigarette."

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