Kentuckians buying fewer cigarettes

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Smokers purchased 120 million fewer packs of cigarettes in Kentucky over the past two years after the state doubled its cigarette tax to 60 cents a pack, a state economist said Friday.

Greg Harkenrider, deputy executive director of the Governor’s Office for Economic Analysis, told The Associated Press that raising the tax in 2009 appears to have done what proponents had hoped: caused people to smoke less.

“The data’s hard to refute on that point,” he said.

Kentucky’s cigarette tax increase came shortly after the federal government raised its rate by 62 cents a pack to $1.01. Together, the state and federal taxes proved to be a double whammy for smokers, pushing average prices for name-brand cigarettes to as much as $44 a carton.

Phillip Morris USA spokesman David Sutton said cigarette sales, which have been declining in the United States for decades, can be expected to drop when taxes go up. But he said some Kentucky smokers could also be buying their cigarettes in neighboring states with lower taxes, particularly Missouri, where the tax is 17 cents a pack, and Virginia, where it’s 30 cents a pack.

Despite the decline in sales, Harkenrider said more than 500,000 packs of cigarettes were sold in Kentucky last year. And financial records show the state is receiving far more revenue from the cigarette tax. In 2008, the year before the tax increase, he state government received $165.5 million. Last year, that increased to $272.6 million.

Tonya Chang, the American Heart Association’s advocacy director, welcomed the decline in sales but said Kentucky, which still has one of the highest smoking rates in the nation, needs to do more to discourage people from lighting up.

Chang said she’d like to see Kentucky’s cigarette tax raised to the national average, which now stands at $1.45.

“Selling fewer cigarettes in Kentucky is good news,” she said. “However, since Kentucky still has one of the highest smoking rates in the country, there is a lot more that could be done to address the problem.”

Chang said the state should spend more than the current $3.7 million a year on smoking prevention and cessation, considering that nearly 25 percent of the state’s population smokes. She said lawmakers also should pass legislation prohibiting smoking in workplaces and public places.

Harkenrider said other factors also played into the decline in cigarette sales in Kentucky, including the growing number of localities that have banned smoking in public places.

More significantly, Harkenrider said, fewer people have been driving to Kentucky from neighboring states to purchase cheaper cigarettes since the higher tax rate was imposed.

State Rep. Tom Riner, D-Louisville, a proponent of the cigarette tax increase, called Harkenrider’s finding regarding the decline in sales “wonderful news.”

“Cardiologists will tell you that smoking cigarettes is perhaps the single most dangerous thing for your overall health,” said Riner, a Baptist minister. “It’s the biggest indicator for heart disease, stroke and lung cancer, so anything to reduce the potential of those diseases would be a blessing.”

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