Sides argue merits of cigarette tax

The Healthy Kids program hinges on a tax increase of 84 cents per pack of Cigarettes, proceeds from which would enable the state to provide help within ...

Even though she is a state employee and her family has insurance coverage, Carlie Jackson of Keizer has personal and professional reasons for supporting Gov. Ted Kulongoski's plan to extend health services to all children.

The Healthy Kids program hinges on a tax increase of 84 cents per pack of Cigarettes, proceeds from which would enable the state to provide help within three years to most of the 117,000 children without it. House Bill 2201 is pending in the Legislature's joint budget committee, which may vote on it soon.

Oregon is one of More than a dozen states considering increases in tobacco taxes this year.

Jackson, who once smoked but quit after the most recent tax increase in 2002, said she supports the increase because it will help children.

Jackson has been a Department of Human Services worker for the past decade, although she said she isn't speaking for her agency.

It wasn't long ago -- November 2004 -- that Jackson was forced to declare bankruptcy because of mounting medical bills. Next to the loss of a job, medical costs account for most personal bankruptcies, according to national studies.

Both she and her daughter, Megan, suffer from asthma, a chronic inflammatory lung disorder that obstructs the airways and results in laboRed breathing. Neither has been hospitalized for it, but the costs of doctor visits and treatments have added up. She uses a nebulizer, a device that delivers medication in the form of a mist.

"Even with the treatments we have today, asthma can be severe," said Jackson, who also has an 18-year-old son. "They also cost a lot More nowadays."

Although state employees are one of the few groups left with fully paid health insurance premiums, plans do not shield them from sharing the rising costs of services and medications.

But Jackson said that compaRed with her sister, who has two children of her own, she feels fortunate.

Her sister's family cannot afford health insurance, even though both parents work, yet is earning too much to qualify for state-supported services under the Oregon Health Plan. A cRedit card pays for their medical care.

At her job, Jackson helps determine whether children and families qualify for coverage under the Oregon Health Plan.

For a decade, when it evolved from a traditional Medicaid program in 1994, the plan provided basic services to all people under the federal poverty level. Because of spending cuts in the past few years, the number of people the plan covers outside requiRed categories has dropped by More than half -- to about 20,000.

Medicaid requires states to cover the poorest children. A different federal program enables states to cover some children above the federal poverty line. But many from "working poor" families qualify for neither. Oregon also has state-subsidized insurance to which families contribute.

"If we had universal health coverage for children, my stress level would decrease so much," Jackson said.

"We wouldn't have to worry about whether we can cover children. It would be just a matter of where they would fit and which program would be best for them. I would not have to listen to parents cry -- and I would not have to go home and cry myself."

She said a tax on Cigarettes is appropriate for health programs, not only to treat diseases linked to smoking "but also to encourage people to stop using the very items that cause the problems to them and their children."

Not everybody agrees with that reasoning.

Kermit Gordon does not smoke and has a child who could benefit from health insurance. Tobacco products are sold at his Macleay Country Store southeast of Salem, but he said he opposes the proposed tax increase for other than financial reasons.

He said that if taxes are increased on products based on their consequences to health, it makes as much sense to tax fast foods, sugar or trans-fats.

"Either we all share the burden of taxation or it is unjust," Gordon said.

Roy Duncan of Keizer also opposes the increase, even though he lost his wife of almost 50 years to lung cancer on Aug. 24, 2001.

"She was a smoker, and I hate smoking and Cigarettes," he said.

"Nonetheless, this is a ridiculous proposal that hits hardest at those least able to pay, since a larger percent of low-income people are smokers. Then there is the philosophy of sticking it to a minority that can't protect itself with votes."

Some Republicans in the Legislature argue that money for a Healthy Kids program should not come from cigarette taxes but from a More stable funding source. As More and More people kick the habit, that source of money will only dwindle.

Twice during the past decade, in 1996 and 2002, Oregonians voted for two increases that nearly doubled state cigarette taxes. Oregon is among the 42 states where such taxes have gone up since 2002. Only about one in five Oregonians smokes.

"I feel they should raise the taxes on Cigarettes to $10 per pack and call it what it really should be: A funeral fund," said John Rylands of Salem, who is a former smoker.

"In this day and age, those who are stupid enough to still smoke should be made to pay for the long-term effects their smoking has on themselves and others. With alcohol, you can get some health benefits from sMall-to-moderate amounts. But I defy anyone to show me a doctor who prescribes smoking as a health benefit for their patients."

Jim Aiken of Salem said that in addition to second-hand smoke, Cigarettes account for forest-fire and littering problems.

"You can't tax Cigarettes enough," he said.

Some critics of the tax increase have raised other questions about the number of children of undocumented immigrants who would receive services.

Jackson said her 16-year-old daughter, Megan, came up with a better rebuttal than she ever could to that argument.

In a recent conversation with a legislative aide, she recounted, "My daughter said these kids go to the same school and sit in the same classes. If they are not healthy, they can make the rest unhealthy -- and then what do we do? Kids are kids, and we need to care about all of them."


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