The Legislature finally passed a cigarette tax increase that will keep the state Medicaid program alive, cut teen smoking and provide the Hollings Cancer Center with $5 million a year. Those benefits are hard to argue against, but it took the General Assembly a decade to make the tax hike happen.
And it required state lawmakers finally to overcome Gov. Mark Sanford's veto, something that the House failed to do in 2008. This time the governor's flawed arguments against the tax hike were repudiated by large margins in the votes to override.
South Carolina's 7-cent per pack tax is the lowest in the nation, and hasn't been raised since 1977, when the dollars it generated had considerably more buying power. The 50-cent increase will take effect on July 1, and will bring the tax to less than half the national average.
It will, however, provide $136 million for the state Medicaid program, and bring in three times that amount in federal dollars. It also will generate $5 million for smoking cessation programs aimed at teenagers, plus the MUSC Hollings Cancer Center allocation. Just raising the price of a pack will cut smoking, and will discourage young people from taking up an unhealthy habit that can be excruciatingly difficult to break.
Hollings Cancer Center Director Andrew Kraft says that's particularly important: "Time and again, we've seen that the vast majority of our patients with smoking-related cancers took up cigarettes when they were in their teens and went on to smoke for many years." He described the tax hike as "a significant child-protection measure for the young people of our state."
Gov. Sanford vetoed the increase earlier this week with an accompanying message contending that the tax hike would be a burden on "working South Carolinians," and should have been offset with a comparable tax decrease elsewhere. The governor also cited his opposition to the federal stimulus plan and federal health care reform as figuring into his veto decision.
But the large majority of legislators looked at the state budget for next year, and the worsening projections for the year after that, and made a decision based on pragmatism rather than ideology. It's about time.