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Cigarette tax would help uninsured children

If you had to make a choice between standing up for Oregon's kids or protecting the profits of the tobacco industry, which would you chose?

That's the choice right now as our state leaders in Salem debate a bill that would solve our state's most tragic health care crisis: the huge number of uninsured children.

There are 117,000 children in Oregon without even basic health-care coverage. It's nearly an unimaginable number. If these kids were lined up side to side on Highway 26 starting in Gresham, they'd keep going through Sandy, through Welches and past Government Camp. They would cover more than 40 miles.

Oregon's uninsured children lack access to doctors, medicine, eyeglasses, asthma inhalers and other health-care services that people with insurance take for granted.

I am a dental assistant and several times a year I volunteer my time to clinics in our region that - for one day - open their door to uninsured families. It's heartbreaking. I see children who are 11 or 12 years old who have never been to the dentist. By the time they get to us they are often in great pain, facing expensive and complicated treatments. They are at risk of losing permanent teeth before they even hit their teens.

At the same time these children suffer, we are spending millions of dollars per year on preventable smoking-related diseases. Every pack of cigarettes sold in Oregon costs us $11.16 in health-care costs.

East Multnomah County residents overwhelmingly support an increase in the cigarette tax. In 2002, the residents in Rep. John Lim's district approved a tobacco tax increase by 67.5 percent. And according to a poll done just last year, 67 percent of voters still approve insuring all uninsured children with an increase in the tobacco tax.

Unfortunately, the 2002 tobacco tax was overturned and now the state is in a health-care double bind: we are spending too much money on smoking and not enough money protecting our children.

There's a solution for this dilemma. The Healthy Kids Plan (House Bill 2201), which is under debate in the state Legislature, would guarantee access to health insurance to every Oregon child and fund it with an increase in the Oregon cigarette tax of 84.5 cents. Healthy Kids would also fund new school-based health care clinics.

The tobacco industry doesn't like it because increasing the tobacco tax will mean that over time, fewer people will smoke. That's good for Oregon because we can move the savings over to the Healthy Kids Plan, but bad for the bottom line of big tobacco.

Last week, Republican Sen. Gordon Smith stood with Gov. Ted Kulongoski and endorsed raising the tobacco tax to pay for health-care coverage for kids. It's good to have Sen. Smith's endorsement, but he won't be voting on the Healthy Kids Plan. The decision will be made by our local lawmakers.

It's unclear why Republicans in the state Legislature continue to side with the tobacco industry. I've heard it said that the campaign contributions from big tobacco to Oregon lawmakers - mostly Republican - are influencing votes. I hope that is not true. I hope that our East County Republican House members will do the right thing and stand with Oregon's children, not big tobacco. But it may take hearing from voters to remind them to do the right thing.

To learn more and send a letter to your representative, go to www.healthykidsoregon.org.

Maggie Anderson is a Gresham resident.