The Legislature has agreed on a 50-cent tax hike on cigarettes, though there is some question whether the margin of support will be sufficient to overcome an anticipated gubernatorial veto. Given the benefits, there should be no question.
The cigarette tax increase will generate $136 million in revenue needed to provide Medicaid funding, cancer research and teen smoking cessation programs. Just raising the tax will reduce the number of young people who start the dangerous habit, by making cigarettes less affordable.
Most of the money will go to support Medicaid recipients, and will ensure that the state receives a $3 federal match for every dollar that the cigarette tax provides. In the state's dire budget situation, the Legislature simply can't afford to pass on the additional support for health care.
Currently, the cigarette tax is 7 cents a pack, the lowest in the nation. A 50-cent increase will bring it to less than half the average tax among the 50 states. That would hardly be an onerous amount.
Cigarette use is linked to a variety of illnesses that the state bears a substantial financial burden to treat. Taxing cigarettes will provide the state with funds to meet that responsibility. It also will reduce cigarette usage, with accompanying health care benefits.
Gov. Mark Sanford has objected to the cigarette tax, as proposed by the Legislature in the past. He says any tax ought to be offset by an equal tax reduction. He vetoed the tax in 2008 and the Legislature failed to override.
His ideas on tax neutrality are shared by enough legislators to make an override of a veto questionable, despite the numerous good reasons to approve the cigarette tax increase.
The House and Senate leadership should encourage support for an override, recognizing that the health benefits it will provide are essential for a growing number of South Carolinians.