Added revenue would provide help to 118,000 Oregonians who need it most
by: Mike Lucas,

The health of Oregon's citizens will be significantly improved if the state Legislature resists pressure from the tobacco lobby and approves a hefty increase in cigarette taxes.

The additional revenue would provide important health insurance for 118,000 Oregon children who currently lack coverage. But there is an added benefit to a higher tax on cigarettes.

We hope the increased tax will prompt some smokers to quit. And as a result of smoking less, they will get sick less often and place less of a cost burden on the entire health care system.

But raising taxes is the focus of contention in the debate over Gov. Ted Kulongoski's Healthy Kids Plan, which links higher cigarette taxes to health coverage for children. Some Republican legislators simply don't support any new taxes, while others may question whether it's a bit perverse to use the most unhealthy of habits - smoking - as the funding basis for a new health program.

Taxing cigarettes is sensible

We believe, however, that there is a logical connection between cigarette taxes and health care, just as there is a link between gas taxes and road funding. In both cases, the people most likely to make the greatest use of the system are the ones paying the tax.

Yes, smokers and tobacco lobbyists will argue that it's unfair for the nonsmoking majority to impose additional taxes on the roughly 20 percent of Oregonians who do smoke. But that argument is undermined by the simple fact that smoking-induced illnesses are an expense borne by all taxpayers.

Every pack of cigarettes sold in Oregon produces an estimated $11.16 in smoking-caused health care costs. That added expense is absorbed by health care consumers, by businesses that provide employee health insurance, and by taxpayers who fund public health programs such as Medicaid and the Oregon Health Plan.

While the financial details of the Healthy Kids Plan may be the focus of the legislative debate, no one should forget the 118,000 Oregon children who have no health coverage.

These children have little access to regular medical care. If they need eyeglasses, their families can't afford them. If they have childhood asthma, they can't get inhalers. And if they become severely ill due to lack of immediate care, they end up in hospital emergency rooms because they have nowhere else to go.

The Healthy Kids Plan will allow the state to meet its moral responsibility to these children by offering health care subsidies to families that otherwise don't have the money needed to insure their kids. The plan takes ability to pay into consideration and would allow families to buy insurance coverage at rates they can afford.

Smith has the right idea

The proposed Oregon approach shows so much potential that the state's most prominent Republican, U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith, has both endorsed the Healthy Kids Plan and proposed a similar initiative at the federal level.

Legislative Republicans should follow Smith's bipartisan lead and join Democrats in approving the Healthy Kids Plan.

Over time, a higher tobacco tax may encourage more Oregonians to quit smoking, which means there will be a smaller funding base for the Healthy Kids Plan. But we have confidence that as the state's health care system begins to treat fewer smoking-related diseases, it will have greater capacity to take care of children.

Medical care for children? A smoke-free Oregon? Who but tobacco companies could argue with those outcomes?

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