States Intensify Assault on Tobacco Use

Published April 1, 2008

Smokers are under siege in state legislatures across the country.

Virginia, Wisconsin, and other states are considering banning smoking in places that serve the public, including privately owned restaurants and bars. In a growing number of states, elected officials are debating whether to prohibit smoking in private automobiles when a child is present. And in about a dozen states, lawmakers are seeking to hike tobacco taxes.

Virginia’s Third Try

In Virginia, lawmakers are considering a statewide smoking ban. Similar proposals failed in 2006 and 2007.

Gov. Tim Kaine (D) supports a ban, saying at a news conference, “Recognizing the negative health effects of secondhand smoke, Virginia must act to protect the workers and consumers in its restaurants.”

Virginia’s business leaders have come out against the proposal, saying government should not regulate private enterprise so intrusively.

“The owner of the business should be the one to decide on whether to allow smoking,” said David Meyer, vice president of the Cigar Association of Virginia. “Seventy percent of restaurants have already gone smoke-free, so there’s no reason to make this into law.”

Wisconsin Aims to Follow Suit

Similarly, Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle (D) wants lawmakers to ban smoking statewide. Most Democrat and many Republican lawmakers gave the governor a standing ovation during his State of the State address earlier this year when he urged them to pass the ban. The measure has the backing of the Wisconsin Restaurant Association.

Many municipalities in the state have passed their own bans. Doyle called on legislators to pass a statewide ban to end “the patchwork approach to public health.” He noted Illinois and Minnesota, which border Wisconsin, have passed similar bans, and said he did not want Wisconsin to “become the ashtray of the Midwest.”

Banning Smoking in Cars Nearly a dozen states–including Maine, Oklahoma, and Oregon–are considering banning smoking in private automobiles when children are present. Arkansas, California, and Louisiana already have passed such laws.

In Washington, state Rep. Shay Secual-Burke (D-Normany Park) and state Sen. Chris Marr (D-Spokane) have sponsored legislation that would make it a traffic infraction to smoke in a car with children.

At a recent Senate committee hearing, state Sen. Mike Carrell (R-Lakewood) said the bill’s provision banning smoking in open-topped cars goes too far. “I don’t smoke–never have smoked–but this is sort of another ‘driftnet’ approach to a ‘nanny-gate’ state,” he said. “What does a house have in common with a field? Nothing. What does an open car with volumes of air blowing around have in common with an enclosed car?”

Kansas Governor’s Call

In Kansas, Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D) has called for an increase in the state’s cigarette tax, starting at 50 cents per pack and indexed to inflation so it would increase automatically after the first year.

Sebelius said the increase is necessary to fund 21 health care recommendations made by a study committee. These include an education campaign to reduce teen smoking, subsidizing insurance premiums for low-income families, and promoting nutrition in schools.

Tim Shallenburger, representing Penn National Gaming, told a legislative panel that a smoking ban would hurt the state’s gaming industry. He said smokers would travel to nearby casinos in Missouri and Oklahoma, states where smoking is allowed.

“This bothers me. Where do we stop?” asked state Sen. Ralph Ostemeyer (R-Grinnell).

Utah’s Tax Proposal

In Utah, state Rep. Paul Ray (R-Clearfield) has introduced a bill to raise taxes on a pack of cigarettes 72 percent, bringing the tax from 69.5 cents to $1.19 per pack. Ray estimates the tax hike would raise $25 to $29 million to help fund health improvement programs such as cancer screenings and smoking cessation programs.

“A tax increase is never popular and [is] viewed as unnecessary in a revenue surplus year and impossible to get passed in an election year,” Ray told the Deseret Morning News. “This is a public health issue that will go on no matter the revenue picture or the political season.”

Ray’s bill faces stiff opposition from members of his own party. Lisa Roskelley, spokesperson for Gov. Jon Huntsman, said the governor plans no tax hikes in the 2008-2009 budget. “We are not for this or any other tax increase,” she told the Deseret Morning News.

Nick Baker ([email protected]) is legislative specialist for budget and tax issues at The Heartland Institute.