COLUMBIA — A poll released Wednesday by the South Carolina Tobacco Collaborative revealed 74 percent of likely voters support raising the state's 7-cent tax on a pack of cigarettes by 93 cents, findings that advocates argued would be difficult for the Legislature to ignore.
The debate over raising the state's cigarette tax, which has not changed since 1977, has been gaining traction among legislators, and most agree on an increase but differ on how much and how to spend the money it would add to coffers.
That was the hang-up last year when the House was unable to override Gov. Mark Sanford's veto.
To Anthony Alberg, associate director for cancer prevention and control at the Medical University of South Carolina's Hollings Cancer Center, the choices are clear.
"By increasing the cigarette tax, South Carolina will reduce smoking, save lives and help offset the health care costs caused by smoking," Alberg said in a statement. More than 103,000 children in the state will die premature deaths because of smoking, he said.
Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Columbia, said he supports raising the tax because it is the most sensible way to plug holes in the health care areas of the budget. State revenue collections have been falling for months and the situation is not expected to improve in the fiscal year that starts July 1.
"This is the year; we've got to get this done," Lourie said.
An increase of 93 cents a pack would generate more than $175 million a year. The poll found virtually no difference between support for raising the tax by 93 cents or 50 cents.
The Legislature passed a bill last year that would have raised the tax by 50 cents a pack and split most of the money between Medicaid expansions and helping lower-income workers buy health insurance. The House fell short of the number needed to override the veto.
Sanford wants the Legislature to increase the tax by 30 cents but he wants the money applied to a new flat income tax.
Most of the people polled, 62 percent, want the money used toward health care; 34 percent would rather see it used to cut taxes.
The remaining 4 percent was not accounted for.
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Cooper, R-Piedmont, said recently that he probably would not support a cigarette tax increase if it is proposed for 50 cents or more per pack.
Cooper said he does not want to hurt businesses that sell cigarettes on the North Carolina and Georgia borders. He also is concerned because as a declining revenue source the money should not be applied to an annual expense, such as Medicaid coverage.
Danny McGoldrick, vice president of research for the Washington-based Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said the decline in revenue generated by the cigarette tax is predictable and gradual, and that makes it easy to plan for.
"It's also the right thing to do," McGoldrick said.