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Published: Thursday, 5/2/2002

Cigarette tax in hike in Ohio fires passion

BY JAMES DREW
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF

COLUMBUS - Robert Richard opposes a proposal to nearly treble Ohio's cigarette tax.

Marianne Huston supports it.

Mr. Richard is president of the Perrysburg-based company that operates 11 convenience stores in Lucas and Wood counties.

Ms. Huston of Toledo has lung cancer.

Yesterday, they jumped into the emotional debate over whether the Ohio General Assembly should increase the excise tax on cigarettes from 24 cents a pack to 74 cents.

Facing a $1.25 billion shortfall in the state operating budget over the next 14 months, legislators are looking at a cigarette tax increase as a way to raise $373 million in 2002-03.

Ms. Huston, 58, told the Senate Finance Committee that her father, Harold Meilink, who owned an auto service shop on Sylvania Avenue, died in 1968 from pulmonary emphysema.

His brother and a cousin, also smokers, died from the same disease, she said.

“In those years we all saw the connection, but it was not easy trying to quit,” said Ms. Huston, who now lives in Columbus. “One of us was always in some new quitting program. We also had the belief that time was on our side, Surely, they would find a cure for this deadly disease before we might have to deal with it.”

Ms. Huston said she was close to quitting smoking 11 years ago, when a routine chest X-ray showed she had lung cancer.

She told legislators that everyone pays for those who have lung cancer, either through higher insurance rates to cover the costs or taxes that fund Medicaid and Medicare.

“Any reasonable thinking person can see that it is grossly unfair for 75 per cent of the Ohio population who do not smoke to pay for the 25 per cent that have determined, in spite of all the best science that says they are killing themselves, to continue this deadly addiction,” she said.

Mr. Richard, president of the company which operates Barney's Convenience Marts, said the stores sell $17 million in cigarettes per year - or 51 per cent of total sales. Two weeks after Michigan upped its cigarette tax by 50 cents a pack in 1994, the number of cartons sold weekly at Barney's on Alexis Road rose from 1,600 to 16,000, Mr. Richard said.

Michigan's cigarette tax is 75 cents a pack, and legislators have proposed raising it to $1. The Indiana tax is 15.5 cents per pack, and state officials are weighing whether to increase it to 65 cents.

“We watch the license plates, and we have people who come down who live north of Detroit. They buy two or three cases of cigarettes for their trailer park,” said Mr. Richard, 54.

A 50-cent a pack increase in Ohio's cigarette tax would cut gross sales by $8.5 million per year, he estimated.

“These numbers do not reflect the loss of sales of other items customers purchase when they come down from Michigan to purchase cigarettes, such as gasoline, beer, and lottery tickets. The total loss to our company could easily be over $10 million a year,” he said.

So what does Mr. Richard tell people like Ms. Huston, who says a 50-cent a pack increase in Ohio's cigarette tax would reduce the number of smokers, particularly among teenagers?

“I was on a steel table getting a heart catheterization,” said Mr. Richard. “I smoked. The doctor told me, `Here's the deal. If you keep smoking, go find another doctor because you're going to die and I don't have time.' I threw them in the trash and haven't smoked one since. That was eight years ago.”

And what does Ms. Huston tell Mr. Richard, who is worried that his 11 stores, employing 200 people, could close because of a sharp cigarette-tax increase and a resulting loss in sales?

“I hear your plight, but it's no different than the state of Ohio regulating companies that sell products that are poisonous. Do we say, `You're able to sell asbestos because we have good, honest people selling it?'”



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