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Process to raise Florida's tobacco tax by $1 per pack may get under way today

TALLAHASSEE — A bipartisan drive to raise Florida's tax on tobacco products for the first time in two decades gets its first formal test today with an afternoon vote in the Senate Finance and Tax Committee.

Legislation sponsored by the panel's chairman, Sen. Thad Altman, R-Melbourne (SB 2438), would raise Florida's tax on cigarettes by $1 per pack and apply the increase to chewing tobacco, smokeless tobacco and cigars. According to an old revenue estimate, the new tax would raise an estimated $850-million a year.

Supporters argue that Florida collects about $430-million in tobacco taxes today, but spends more than $1.2-billion in smoking-related health care costs. They say that means that the 80 percent of Floridians who don't smoke are subsidizing the smoking-related illnesses of those who do.

"Over time, we have let what the state spends on tobacco-related illnesses get way out of balance with what we take in from users of tobacco," said Sen. Ted Deutch, D-Boca Raton, who joined Altman at a Monday news conference along with Sens. Durell Peaden, R-Crestview, and Nan Rich, D-Weston.

Another reason supporters cite for raising the tax is that a higher cost would encourage some smokers to quit — especially young people.

Gov. Charlie Crist has described himself as "resistant" to tax increases, but he has not shut the door entirely on increasing the cigarette tax. Passage of the tobacco tax hike by the Senate would increase pressure on the House to follow suit.

"I'm growing more hopeful every day," said Paul Hull of the American Cancer Society. "The budget picture is so dire, but if that's the reason the Legislature does it, so be it. The real winner is public health."

Legislators remain leery of using the word "tax" to describe the new levy. Deutch has often referred to it as a "user fee," and Altman calls it a "surcharge."

"This is not a revenue-raising exercise for us," Altman said. "This is an issue of public health."

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Process to raise Florida's tobacco tax by $1 per pack may get under way today 03/31/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 1, 2009 8:56am]
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