Senate passes cigarette-tax boost

Cigarette tax

ALAN HAWES

COLUMBIA -- The next move in the decades-long fight to increase the state's cigarette tax belongs to Gov. Mark Sanford.

Sanford's communications director Ben Fox said Wednesday that the governor will carefully review the bill to raise the tax by 50 cents on a pack of cigarettes. His comments came after the Senate voted 41-1 to give the bill final approval.

"We've repeatedly expressed grave concerns about raising the overall tax burden on South Carolinians without corresponding tax relief," Fox said.

South Carolina has the lowest state cigarette tax in the nation at 7 cents a pack. The national average is $1.41 a pack.

Most of the $136 million raised would go toward future Medicaid expenses. About $10 million would be set aside for smoking cessation and prevention and cancer research at the Hollings Cancer Center at the Medical University of South Carolina for lung cancer research.

It also would give $1 million to marketing agriculture products.

Sanford is expected to veto the legislation, as he did two years ago. In May 2008 the House fell 20 votes short of the total needed to override a veto on a 50-cent increase.

The same could happen this year. The House showed lukewarm support for a 50-cent increase that eventually passed by a voice vote April 20. Many in the House pushed for a 30-cent increase, so it's unclear if the House will have enough support to find the 83 members needed to override the expected veto.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Cooper, R-Piedmont, said it was more likely that a veto could be overridden with a 30-cent tax, but polling showed a veto of a 50-cent increase might stand.

But the prospects may have brightened with legislators weary of annual battles on the issue. "People are tired of dealing with that issue in the Legislature and want to get it behind them" Cooper said.

The Senate's vote on Wednesday shows enough support to overturn a veto. Sen. Lee Bright, R-Roebuck, was the only senator to vote against the bill.

Kelly J. Davis, spokeswoman for the South Carolina Tobacco Collaborative, said advocates are trying to build more support.

"Poll after poll over the years shows that the vast majority of South Carolinians would support a cigarette tax increase of $1 a pack," Davis said. "The public support is there for this legislation."

Research by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids shows that a 50-cent cigarette tax increase would prevent 23,300 South Carolina children from becoming smokers and would prompt 12,800 adult smokers to quit, according to Davis.

Smoking has become more expensive around the nation, with the average smoker paying $5.28 a pack when taxes are included. South Carolina's average price would be $4.28 a pack with the increase. The federal tax last year jumped 62 cents a pack to $1.01.

South Carolina's 7-cent tax has been in place since 1977. If the increase becomes law, Missouri would then have the nation's lowest tax at 17 cents a pack. Rhode Island's tax is the highest at $3.46 per pack.