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Copyright 1996 The Indianapolis Newspapers, Inc.

February 1, 1996 Thursday CITY FINAL EDITION


LENGTH: 668 words

HEADLINE: Low taxes, high death rate for smokers


Indiana has a new - and dubious - distinction. According to data released last week by the Centers for Disease Control, our state ranks seventh in the number of deaths linked to smoking.

At the same time, Indiana has the eighth lowest excise tax on cigarettes, 15.5 cents per pack compared to a national average of 32.7. Researchers say that's no coincidence.

"There appears to be a definite correlation between the high prevalence of smoking and ensuing deaths and those states with low excise taxes," says David R. Richards, chairman of the public affairs committee of the American Heart Association's Indiana chapter.

"If you look at the eight states with the lowest taxes on cigarettes, you will see that all of them are grouped in the higher rates of deaths related to smoking," he says. "Lower prices simply stimulate the purchase and consumption of cigarettes. "

The study raises important policy questions for Hoosier lawmakers, who should quickly determine why Indiana is so accepting of smoking.

The financial implications are enormous since smoking-related death and illness are linked to higher health care costs.

A favorable climate Especially noteworthy is the fact that six of the seven states with lowest cigarette taxes are major tobacco producers. That's no surprise. But it doesn't seem to explain Indiana's ranking.

Or maybe it does. Although most Hoosiers aren't aware of it, Indiana is the eighth largest of 16 tobacco growing states. While our tobacco production doesn't begin to rival that of Kentucky, it is nonetheless a significant cash crop for southern Indiana. In 1994, 7,100 acres of tobacco were harvested here, representing 15 million pounds and bringing in $ 29 million for growers.

In addition to having low taxes, Indiana has few restrictions on cigarette purchases, compared with other states.

A possible explanation is the state's conservative political climate and general distrust of government intervention in personal lives. But it's equally clear that Hoosier lawmakers have received the same tobacco industry lobbying that occurs in Southern states, although on a smaller scale.

Limiting access

Two years ago, the Indiana General Assembly considered, but rejected, a proposal to raise cigarette excise taxes. At the time, opposition was based almost entirely on the broader dislike of tax hikes.

As the CDC study shows, there are good policy reasons besides raising revenue to raise the excise tax, foremost of which is to cut cigarette consumption. The concern is paramount when it comes to young people, who are especially influenced by low taxes because they have less cash to spend.

Nationwide, the CDC reported, about 30 percent of all high school students smoke at least once a month. In Indiana, 32.6 percent of high schoolers were reported to have smoked in the past month.

One bill in the legislature attempts to tackle the issue of underage smoking by making it a Class C infraction, punishable by a $ 500 fine, for a minor to possess cigarettes. Senate Bill 106 also allows random inspections of certain retailers that sell them. But it forbids the use of minors in sting operations to test compliance with state law, which prohibits sale of cigarettes to juveniles.

That language makes the provision almost worthless.

Clearly, the legislation is mild compared to some of the more radical proposals being considered federally by the Food and Drug Administration, but at least legislators are thinking about how to restrict children's access to cigarettes. Raising the excise tax would be more effective.

According to the CDC, 27 percent of Hoosier adults smoke, the fourth highest number in the country. Only Alaska, Kentucky and Nevada have more. The distinction is nothing to be proud of. The question is: What do we do about it?

Neal is an editorial writer for The Star.