Governor proposes 56-cent tobacco tax for Arkansas health care

Friday, January 23, 2009

During this legislative session, the members of the General Assembly will face many challenging decisions that can shape the future prosperity and well-being of Arkansans for years to come. One such choice is whether the political courage exists to raise the tax on tobacco to fund the most comprehensive, far-reaching health-care package the State has seen in years.

It's a choice between a past where Arkansas has languished near the bottom of nearly every national survey of major health indicators, and a future in which we lift ourselves out of the bottom tier, raise our quality of life, focus on prevention and wellness, and create a healthier Arkansas.

I've proposed a 56 cent, per-pack increase in the cigarette tax, along with corresponding reform of the smokeless-tobacco tax, to create $87 million a year in new revenue. When you combine that with matching money from federal Medicaid programs, we have the opportunity to generate more than $170 million annually for health care in Arkansas.

Certainly this proposal would put an additional burden on those who smoke; and needless to say, tobacco companies aren't lining up to lend their support. But tobacco sales are the right source to raise this money because tobacco users place a disproportionately high burden on our State's health-care system. Even by conservative estimates, health-care costs attributable to smoking total more than $620 million a year in Arkansas. A report issued by the National Centers for Disease Control this week reveals that Arkansas has the seventh-highest rate of smoking deaths in the nation. By taking action now, we can reduce these numbers and prevent thousands of young people from ever deciding to use tobacco in the first place. It's time we choose to put the health of our people first.

This new revenue would mean that we can finally create a statewide trauma system and establish trauma centers throughout Arkansas. With a fully functioning trauma system, we can have the resources and facilities nearby to begin immediate treatment and save lives, no matter where a traumatic injury occurs. Arkansas is the only state in America without a Level One trauma hospital. To me, this is unacceptable.

We can also provide more resources for our Community Health Centers, making preventive care and basic treatment more affordable and more accessible in every corner of Arkansas, especially in our rural areas. We can create more home-health care options, allowing our elderly and disabled citizens to be treated in more comfortable and familiar surroundings, and letting children with mental illnesses stay in their communities rather than in institutions. We can fund more research and treatment for thousands of Arkansans stricken with cancer each year. We can expand health insurance for small businesses; offer drug and alcohol treatment to those who so desperately need help; provide flu vaccinations at no cost to every man, woman, and child who want one; and, create a satellite medical school in Northwest Arkansas to train more doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals for communities throughout our State.

All of this is within reach, and all of these programs create a healthier Arkansas, while driving down health-care costs for each and every one of our residents. The right choice has to be made, because the alternative is too costly in dollars and in lives. Providing new and better health-care programs that offer more options is an investment that we must summon the collective courage to say "yes" to.

I hope you'll join me in fighting for a better future for our State and our people. Contact your legislators and tell them that you choose moving forward over staying stuck in the mire of the past. Tell them that our State can and must do better. The choice is in our hands.

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