The Iowa Senate has approved a $1-per-pack increase in the state tax on a pack of cigarettes. Senator Matt McCoy, a Democrat from Des Moines, is among those who argue the hike will help force some smokers to quit and prevent others from taking up the habit. "Today has been a long day coming. For too many Iowans it is already too late," McCoy said to open the debate. "It is too late because they’ve already died prematurely due to cancer or heart disease or emphysema or other diseases caused by smoking."
But most Republicans in the Iowa Senate say they doubted better health was Democrats’ true objective, and they voted against the bill. Senator Larry McKibben, a Republican from Marshalltown, suggested the price of a pack of cigarettes should go up by $1 a pack, but the extra money should go to the retailer, not to the state. "It defines whether this bill is about growing the state budget by $127 million or in fact this is a health care bill," McKibben argued.
McCoy and 30 other senators rejected McKibben’s proposal. "It would assure that the state actually get no revenue from the increased sales tax for cigarettes but the retailers would make out like bandits," McCoy countered.
Another Republican Senator, David Hartsuch of Bettendorf — who is a physician, offered other alternatives: making smokers get a $10 state permit to buy tobacco; denying those permits to anyone who receives welfare and raising the legal age for possession of cigarettes from 18 to 21.
"This will, I would say, drastically influence the consumption of tobacco in our state," Hartsuch said. A majority of senators rejected those three ideas, too.
Another Republican, Senator Mark Zieman of Postville, proposed an even higher, five-dollar-per-pack increase and he offered this explanation. "Two years ago floating around this chamber was (the idea that) if we could raise the tax on cigarettes $1 — 20 percent of the people would quit," Zieman said. "Now, I’m not the brightest light bulb in the box, however I know if $1 (per pack) makes 20 percent quit, there’s a pretty good chance $5 (per pack) is going to make everybody quit." Senators overwhelmingly voted down Zieman’s idea.
After nearly four hours of debate that ended just after 12:20 this morning, the Iowa Senate endorsed the one-dollar per pack cigarette tax increase. The vote was 34 to 14. Senator Joe Bolkcom, a Democrat from Iowa City, was one of those "yes" votes. "I think our action tonight will be probably one of the most significant public health improvements that we’re going to see in a long time," Bolkcom said.
Senator Bill Dotzler, a Democrat from Waterloo, has a mother who owns a Waterloo tavern where smokers congregate, but he voted in favor of the cigarette tax hike. "When you see your friends die, that affects you. This has been one of the toughest issues I’ve ever had to deal with," Dotzler said. "…I’m going against some friends because I want them to stop."
For the past 16 years, the state tax on a pack of cigarettes has been 36 cents. Governor Chet Culver supports the buck-a-pack cigarette tax hike, but the increase must be endorsed by the Iowa House, too, before the bill reaches Culver’s desk.