- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Rhode Island last week increased its tax on a pack of cigarettes by $1 in a move praised by health advocacy groups as a way to help reduce smoking rates.

“We are extremely proud of our advocates in Rhode Island for enacting this landmark increase and supporting a healthier environment for everyone,” said Daniel E. Smith, president of the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network. “We encourage other states to continue this life-saving trend.”

The Rhode Island General Assembly this month approved the tax increase as part of the state’s 2009 supplemental budget. The tax boost, which took effect last Friday, means that Rhode Island now has the highest cigarette tax in the nation at $3.46 per pack.

Gov. Donald L. Carcieri threatened to veto the increase, but instead allowed the bill to become law without his signature.

According to estimates by the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, the $1 tax increase will deter 7,300 youths in Rhode Island from smoking and motivate 3,400 current smokers in the state to quit.

The increased tax also is expected to generate about $13.3 million in revenue for the state. The long-term health impact savings for the state from the anticipated decline of adult and youth smoking is estimated to be $160.1 million.

The tax increase pushed Rhode Island’s tobacco tax from fourth highest in the nation to the highest. New York previously had the highest cigarette tax in the nation at $2.75 a pack. The lowest state cigarette tax is in South Carolina at seven cents per pack. The current average state cigarette tax is $1.21.

Since January 2002, 44 states and the District of Columbia have increased cigarette taxes — some more than once.

New White House office

President Obama has made no secret of his desire to overhaul the nation’s health care system. So last week he took this priority a step further by issuing an executive order to create the White House Office of Health Reform.

The new office “will provide leadership to the executive branch in establishing policies, priorities and objectives for the federal government’s comprehensive effort to improve access to health care, the quality of such care, and the sustainability of the health care system,” according to the executive order.

The office is intended to integrate the president’s health care agenda across the scope of the federal government.

The decree also calls for the Health and Human Services Department to set up its own office of health reform, which will work closely with its White House version.

“The health care system suffers from serious and pervasive problems; access to health care is constrained by high and rising costs; and the quality of care is not consistent and must be improved, in order to improve the health of our citizens and our economic security,” Mr. Obama wrote in the order that was issued on Wednesday.

VA budget proposal

President Obama last week endorsed a proposal to restructure the Department of Veterans Affairs’ budgeting process that would allow the agency to get money two years ahead of time.

Under the proposal, the VA’s current one-year budget would be replaced by a two-year budget cycle that would allow Congress to submit spending bills for the agency an extra year in advance.

The idea has been pushed by lawmakers and veterans’ advocates as a way for the agency to better plan for the future.

The chairmen of the House and Senate Veterans Affairs committees, Democrats Sen. Daniel K. Akaka of Hawaii and Rep. Bob Filner of California, have sponsored bills that would allow Congress to write two-year budgets for VA health care expenditures.

“VA operates the largest health care system in the nation, but its funding has been late 19 of the past 22 years,” Mr. Akaka said. “This is no way to operate a national system that has such a solemn duty.”

Children’s health care

The Obama administration last week said it will make $2.3 billion available from the $787 billion economic stimulus package for children’s health care and disease prevention programs.

The administration said it will set aside $2 billion for states to support child-care programs for working families and for parents seeking employment or receiving job training or education.

About $300 million will be reserved for vaccine programs for the poor.

“Parents are worried about finding a job or keeping the job they have and they shouldn’t have to worry about affording quality child care,” said Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. while announcing the program. “Safe, affordable, high-quality child care gives working parents the peace of mind they need to be stable, dependable employees.”

Sean Lengell can be reached at slengell@washingtontimes.com.

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