- Associated Press - Monday, July 20, 2015

Here is a sampling of editorial opinions from Alaska newspapers:

July 18, 2015

Ketchikan Daily News: Proceed carefully

Social engineering or revenue grab?

Neither motivation should set well with Ketchikan residents as their municipal governments consider excise taxes of $3 per pack on cigarettes and 75 percent on other tobacco products. Our elected officials should consider the issue carefully before moving forward.

The tax is being proposed as a way to reduce smoking. That’s a worthy goal. Research indicates a correlation between rising cigarette costs and reductions in smoking, especially among younger smokers.

But it’s worth noting that Alaska’s cigarette prices are high already.

Here, a pack of cigarettes is subject to a $1.01-per-pack federal tax and a $2-per-pack state tax, bringing the cost of a pack of cigarettes in Alaska retail stores to around $9. A 2014 annual survey of cigarette costs by state conducted by TheAwl.com showed an Alaska price of $9.75 for a pack of Marlboro Reds - the fourth highest in the nation. This week you could get a pack of those cigarettes locally for $9.15, including local sales tax. Add another $3 in excise tax and we’re getting close to famously nanny-state (and highest priced) New York, where a pack cost $12.85 in 2014.

How high can - or should - the price go to have the maximum impact on smoker behavior? We suspect the correlation between higher prices and smoking reductions within a given jurisdiction begins to fade at some point, especially when the market shifts to lower-cost sources elsewhere. And, lower-cost options would be readily available, even here in southern Southeast Alaska.

As proposed, the Ketchikan tobacco taxes would generate an estimated total of $1.2 million. A local government keen on ending smoking within its borders presumably would devote most of that money toward smoking cessation programs.

The Ketchikan proposal would route 15 percent - about $180,000 - to such programs. The rest would flow to the borough ($408,000) and City of Ketchikan ($612,000), and would be available for whatever else those governments had in mind.

Granted, those aren’t huge amounts of money, but the small percentage of tobacco tax proceeds going directly to smoking cessation suggests that the ultimate motivation for imposing such taxes leans more toward revenue generation than addressing health concerns.

As the “conceptual framework” for the proposed tobacco excise tax points out, the “results of any smoking cessation should be carefully monitored. If it cannot be shown that the smoking cessation efforts are successful, the allocation of funds to the smoking cessation effort should be discontinued.”

Not much word, however, about discontinuing the tax itself. One only has to look at the State of Alaska and alcohol taxes to see that, once imposed, a “sin-tax” revenue source doesn’t always get used to address the societal costs of the “sin,” nor does the government cease to tap that revenue source.

The state ratcheted up its excise taxes on alcohol - while not allowing municipalities to impose their own excise taxes - to the point where Alaska now has “the highest overall alcohol tax rate in the nation,” according to John Aronno, writing in the “Alaska Commons” earlier this year.

In a 2013 story about how Alaska’s drinking rates haven’t declined despite the high tax rate, then Alaska Dispatch News reporter Kyle Hopkins noted that Alaska legislators who approved the state’s last big boost in alcohol taxes in 2002 “planned to spend at least half of the alcohol money on substance abuse rehabilitation and prevention.

“Instead, state spending on alcohol and drug programs plummeted the year after the increased rates took hold,” Hopkins wrote.

The state’s use of those revenues to address alcohol-related issues has fluctuated in the years since, but the revenue tap itself hasn’t been closed or reduced.

Our local officials, if they choose to pursue an excise tax on tobacco products, should be honest in their reasons for doing so.

They also should ensure there’s some fairness involved. The level of taxation proposed seems punitive on a particular group of local residents.

Also, other products certainly can result in health issues. Should those be taxed, as well?

Again, if Ketchikan is going to go down this road, it should proceed as carefully as possible.

___

July 18, 2015

Peninsula Clarion: Handle a crisis by planning for it

Be prepared.

The phrase has long been the Boy Scout motto, but more and more, we’re seeing it put into practice on a day to bay basis.

As a case in point, the Clarion recently reported on a pair of training programs aimed at preparing local citizens and organizations to respond to an unexpected turn of events.

The first is a Community Emergency Response Team program. The program, administered by the Kenai Peninsula Borough’s Office of Emergency Management, allows community members to be trained in everything from leadership to medical response so they are prepared for future emergencies or disasters. The current session is under way, wrapping up July 25.

The other program offered recently was the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Run, Hide, Fight workplace violence preparedness program July 9, held at the Challenger Learning Center of Alaska.

While the programs address different situations, the philosophy behind them is the same: In a crisis situation, have an established plan of action. That means discussing potential situations and assigning duties or developing protocols before those situations arise, so that if or when they do, people know how to react.

Certainly, the threat of workplace violence and reaction to it deserve serious discussion. We can no longer say “that won’t happen here,” and local organizations should have a plan in place.

But there are plenty of other steps to be taken to ensure organizations can respond to smaller emergencies, too. For example, does everyone in the office know how to use the fire extinguisher?

There are plenty of other programs to help with emergency preparedness. Many peninsula residents have adopted FireWise principles, particularly with the recent increase in wildfire risk. Even something as simple as doing a periodic fire drill with your family can save a life.

The borough Office of Emergency Management website is a good source of information to prepare for emergencies: www.kpb.us/emergency-mgmt.

The potential for disaster is part of life on the Kenai Peninsula. Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, wildfires and extreme weather are regular occurrences. Human-caused emergencies are becoming part of the landscape, too. Spend some time planning for those situations now, and when they do happen, you’ll be prepared.

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