- Associated Press - Friday, March 17, 2017

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Supporters of a bill that would more than triple Nebraska’s tax on cigarettes argued Friday it would discourage teenagers from smoking, but retailers contend a higher tax would cause customers to buy tobacco in other states.

A measure sponsored by Sen. Sara Howard of Omaha would increase the state’s cigarette tax from 64 cents on a pack of 20 to $2.14. Revenue from the extra $1.50 in tax would be split between the state’s general fund and funds used for behavioral health services.

While adult tobacco use has decreased in Nebraska, youth smoking increased in 2015, the most recent year for which the state Department of Health and Human Services has data. The state’s 13 percent youth smoking rate is the seventh highest in the nation.

Increasing cigarette taxes will stop teens from smoking, said Brooklyn Larimore, a junior at Bellevue West High School and ambassador for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

“I know that an increase in the tax will be effective because if youth can’t afford tobacco, they won’t be getting it at all,” Larimore said.

Annie Bird, the immediate past president of the Munroe-Meyer Institute at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, said she supports additional funding for UNMC programs provided by an increased tax. Bird’s sister is trying to quit smoking after a smoking-related heart attack, and Bird said she hoped an increased tax would dissuade cigarette smokers like her sister.

“All I can hope is that for her and other people across the state is that the increase in tax means when they go to that counter to buy cigarettes they think twice about whether they can afford it,” Bird said.

Nebraska’s 64 cent tobacco tax is lower than those of 39 states and the District of Columbia. Increasing the tax to $2.14 would place Nebraska among the 15 highest states, though it would still be less than half New York’s $4.35 tax.

The change would push Nebraska’s cigarette tax above every neighboring state. Iowa’s tax is $1.36, South Dakota’s is $1.53, Wyoming’s is 60 cents, Colorado’s is 84 cents, Kansas’s is $1.29 and Missouri has the lowest tax in the nation at 17 cents.

Smokers will just start buying cigarettes in other states, Nebraska Grocery Industry Association executive director Kathy Siefken said.

“It doesn’t make a difference if it’s fuel, if it’s food or if it’s tobacco,” she said. “People will go where it’s cheaper.”

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Follow Julia Shumway on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JMShumway

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