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Up in Smoke: What a Proposed Tobacco Tax Hike Could Mean for Georgia

HB 191 would raise the costs of cigarettes by 20 cents, and boost prices for vape products.

HB 191 would increase taxes on tobacco products in Georgia in the interest of public health. (Ric Feld/Associated Press)

Everybody knows smoking is bad for you, which is why a group of state lawmakers wants to make it more expensive in Georgia.

In early February, state Rep. Ron Stephens introduced HB 191, legislation that would raise taxes on tobacco products in the interest of public health.

It’s a move that could have more of an impact on the state’s Black residents, who studies show suffer from health disparities and socioeconomic conditions that make them more susceptible to the negative health effects of smoking and second-hand smoke. Those socioeconomic conditions, however, also mean making cigarettes more expensive will have a larger financial impact on Black smokers.

Here, we explain the pros and cons of this legislation, what it says, and how it could affect you.

What’s in the bill?

HB 191 would increase the price of a pack of 20 cigarettes to 57 cents from 37 cents. The legislation would also increase the price of vape products. 

The estimated $90 million in revenue generated from the proposed tax hike would be used to address the many health care service issues affecting Georgia in the absence of Medicaid expansion across the state.

What does this mean for you?

In 2021, the share of Black folks in Georgia who identified as current smokers was 14.9%.

Black Americans are more likely to die from smoking-related illnesses, according to the CDC. They’re also more likely to be exposed to second-hand smoke than other racial groups, the health agency reported.

Studies show Black people tend to support raising taxes on tobacco, despite those increases hurting their pockets more than other groups.

Why increase tobacco taxes now?

It’s been about two decades since the state increased taxes on tobacco, according to Stephens.

The American Lung Association says the state’s proposed tobacco tax increase would help improve public health outcomes in Georgia’s Black community. 

“More individuals would quit smoking, which would result in less chronic diseases and health complications from tobacco use,” an American Lung Association spokesperson said in an emailed statement.

The American Lung Association says Georgia’s cigarette tax rate ranks second to last in the nation.

During a Feb. 22 House Ways and Means subcommittee hearing, Stephens, a former pharmacist who represents Savannah, claimed that tobacco-related illnesses have cost Georgia $699 million in Medicaid health care costs alone. The current tobacco tax only generates about $150 million, he said.

“If you’re going to smoke, and you smoke long enough and hard enough, you’re going to get sick,” Stephens said. “It shouldn’t be up to the taxpayers — which is you and I, in the state of Georgia — to fund your health care costs for your decision. It’s your choice, but it shouldn’t be my bill to pay.”

What happens next?

There’s a reason Georgia’s tobacco tax rate ranks among the lowest in the nation. HB 191 faces an uphill battle in the GOP-controlled General Assembly, which typically opposes raising taxes.

But Leo Smith, a Republican strategist, expects a version of the bill will eventually get signed into law. He points out Gov. Brian Kemp has softened his stance against expanding government health care programs like Medicaid and Medicare via his $52 million Georgia Pathways to Coverage program.

Smith says Republicans likely will look for ways to offset the costs of the Pathways program and HB 191 would help, though the proposed 20-cent tax increase on packs of cigarettes may be reduced before it becomes law.

“The argument will be this is a choice that people are making with cigarette smoking,” Smith said. “When you have a choice on something like that, a consumable, then it is smart to raise taxes to disincentivize it.”

How do I weigh in?

Contact your state Senate or House representative and let them know where you stand on the issue.