Don't go wobbly on smoking ban, tax

State lawmakers should resist efforts to add more exemptions to the statewide public smoking ban, as they deliver on Gov. Mark Parkinson's call for a sensible tobacco-tax hike to help fund the 2011 budget.

True, nobody can blame the Wichita business owners who invested in new smoking rooms for being upset now that the local ordinance allowing such rooms has been nullified by the statewide ban, which goes into effect July 1. And the state law's hypocritical loophole for state-owned casinos has got to go eventually.

But the problem isn't that the Legislature finally passed a strong ban this year. It's that it didn't do so sooner, leading Wichita to pass its own weak ban in 2008.

If state lawmakers revisit the law and "make some more exceptions for businesses," as state Sen. Jean Schodorf, R-Wichita, termed it last week, they'll be making exceptions for how the state values the health of all Kansans, including those who work in or patronize exempt businesses.

When the U.S. surgeon general declared in 2006 that secondhand smoke "is a serious health hazard" and dangerous in even small amounts, he did not make exceptions for those unlucky enough to have jobs in smoky businesses. Many studies since have confirmed that where smoking is banned in bars and restaurants, hospitalizations for heart and respiratory ailments significantly decrease — by 39 and 33 percent, respectively, in the case of Toronto's 9-year-old ban, as reported Monday by the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

In addition, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cigarette use drops by 3 to 4 percent among adults — double that among teens — for every 10 percent hike in price.

Parkinson, who proposes raising Kansas' tax from 79 cents a pack to the national average of $1.34, told The Eagle editorial board last week: "Why would we want to have a tobacco tax that's less than the national average? What good public policy reason is there to do that?"

The increase would make Kansas' cigarette tax higher than those of Missouri (17 cents per pack), Oklahoma ($1.03), Colorado (84 cents) and Nebraska (64 cents). But, as Parkinson said, the priority should be what's best for Kansas, not what other states do. Since the recession began and states' revenues plummeted, there also has been a gold rush toward tobacco tax hikes in many states, with even lowest-in-the-nation South Carolina (7 cents per pack) on the verge of a 30- to 50-cent hike.

Public opinion polls show Kansans strongly favor higher tobacco taxes. And "I can't point to a single legislator who lost an election because they voted for a cigarette tax increase," Glen Bolger, of Public Opinion Strategies, told the Kansas Health Institute News Service.

With Kansas' total Medicaid spending at $2.5 billion a year and growing an average 8 percent a year, the state has a vested interest in cutting both smoking rates and secondhand smoke. Going wobbly on either the smoking ban or a tobacco tax increase would defy reality regarding the state's public and fiscal health.