S.C. smokers would pay more per pack under a proposal to raise money for teacher salary hikes and curb teen smoking.
State Rep. Joseph Jefferson Jr., D-Berkeley, a former smoker of 20 years, has filed a bill that would increase the state’s cigarette tax by 5 cents a cigarette — or $1 a pack — “to be used for equal pay raises for all K-12 public school teachers.”
Meanwhile, American Cancer Society activists met with legislators Tuesday to urge them to protect teens from cancer by raising the cigarette tax by even more — $1.50 a pack.
“There are too many of our teenagers who will be dying at a much earlier age because of early smoking. We need to stop that,” Jefferson said. “Let’s do what we can to decrease this dangerous habit.”
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Jefferson said his bill would generate more than $153 million a year in revenue for the state — nearly $100 million less than Cancer Society’s proposal. That group estimates its proposed $1.50-a-pack tax hike would bring in $249 million a year to increase teachers’ salaries, and pay for tobacco prevention and cessation programs as well as other health care costs.
Tobacco-related illnesses costs the state $1.9 billion a year in health care expenditures, including $476 million in Medicaid costs, according to the Cancer Society.
“My biggest plan, right now, is to make sure we can create some fund so we can keep our teachers,” Jefferson said. “It makes absolutely no sense to have 5,000 of our teachers leaving the state to find ... more profitable venues so that they can have a decent livelihood.”
House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, is proposing to raise the starting salary of teachers to $35,000 a year and give pay raises to other teachers as part of his education-reform package.
Amid a statewide shortage, teachers have been calling on legislators to increase their salaries above the Southeastern average — just more than $51,000.
Lucas’ office said he has yet to review the cigarette tax hike bill and would not comment. Thus far, the bill has garnered 17 co-sponsors from both sides of the political aisle. However, tax hike proposals generally do not fare well in the GOP-controlled Legislature.
South Carolina’s 57-cent-a-pack cigarette tax ranks among the lowest in the nation — 45th — and is well below the national average of $1.70.
An estimated 7,200 S.C. deaths are caused by smoking each year, according to the Cancer Society. Twenty percent of S.C. adults and 9.6 percent of high school students smoke, the group said.
Substantially increasing the cost of tobacco products would help reduce youth smoking and encourage thousands of adults to kick the habit, said Beth Johnson, S.C. government relations director for the cancer network.
“It’s your job to pick up the torch for other people when they can’t fight,” said coach Michael Kleinfelder, a two-time cancer survivor and girls’ soccer coach at Lexington County’s Gilbert High School, who was joined by players and roughly 50 volunteers at the State House.
The Cancer Society also wants a ban on anyone under the age of 18 using indoor tanning devices, listed as cancer-causing by the World Health Organization.
Rates of skin cancer in South Carolina are on the rise, according to the Cancer Society. This year, an estimated 1,810 South Carolinians will be diagnosed with melanoma. Using an indoor tanning device before age 35 increases the risk of contracting the disease by 59 percent, the group says.