- The Washington Times - Monday, April 9, 2018

With growing support from anti-smoking advocates, the D.C. Council is aiming to increase the city’s tax on cigarettes by $2 a pack.

“This isn’t about generating revenue. It’s not about increasing the taxes,” said Stuart Berlow, director of government relations for the American Heart Association. “It’s about raising the price to create a disincentive for youth so that people buy less cigarettes and ultimately will quit smoking.”

First proposed in September, the Department of Health Smoking Cessation Fund Amendment Act of 2017 would raise the cigarette tax from $2.94 a pack to $4.94 a pack. It is estimated to raise $5.2 million, a portion of which would fund public advocacy against smoking.

The bill’s progress slowed after council hearing in February during which store owners complained that a tax increase could hurt their sales revenue and tax analysts expressed concerns about an overall loss of revenue for the city’s coffers.

On Monday, the council’s Health Committee — led by Vincent Gray, Ward 7 Democrat — conducted a hearing on the legislation at which dozens of public witnesses testified on the merits of the using higher taxes to curb smoking.

“The benefits of this legislation are clear,” Jodi Kwarciany, a health policy analyst for the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, testified Monday. The nonpartisan think tank estimates the legislation would save the District $148 million in health care costs and reduce youth smoking rates by 21 percent over the next several years.

Representatives of the American Heart Association, the American Lung Association and the American Cancer Society also testified on the merits of higher tobacco taxes in reducing smoking nationwide. State lawmakers in Oklahoma recently passed a $2-per-pack tax increase, and legislators in Colorado have increased the cigarette tax by $1 a pack.

In addition, local advocates from organizations like Breathe DC, a nonprofit that advocates for smoking cessation and sponsors a summer camp for children with asthma, testified as well.

“We are outraged at Breathe DC by the fact that 7-out-of-10 children live in households where people smoke,” said the group’s president, Rolando Andrewn.

“This problem is more of a problem in the east end of the District,” Mr. Andrewn said. “We have rates of asthma continue to rise — over 20 percent asthma in Wards 7 and 8 — so the problem is continuing.”

About 27 percent of residents in Wards 7 and 8 smoke compared to only 10 percent in Wards 2, 3, and 6, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

CDC data also show that 22 percent of the District’s black residents smoke, but only 9 percent of white residents do, and that city dwellers earning less than $15,000 a year are three times as likely to smoke compared to those who earn more than $50,000.

Mr. Gray, himself a former smoker, helped introduced the legislation in September. On Monday, he shared a personal reason for why he believes in ending smoking for D.C. residents.

“My wife who was a [school] teacher died quite suddenly of lung cancer,” Mr. Gray said. “I don’t know that it was second-hand smoke that did it, but she wasn’t a smoker. She contracted lung cancer and lasted about 3 months after [being] diagnosed.”

“From a professional and a personal perspective, I have an extraordinary commitment to try to see that people take advantage of the opportunities to not start smoking in the first place, and if they do, see that they have opportunities to make the decision to do something different with their lives,” he said.

• Julia Airey can be reached at jairey@washingtontimes.com.

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