Anti-tobacco cheerleaders waved pom-poms and passed out smoked salmon as dancing cigarette butts gyrated to the tune of Kool and the Gang's "Celebration" Tuesday during a rally on the steps of the state Capitol.
Gov. Frank Murkowski and Joel Gilbertson, commissioner of the state Department of Health and Human Services, addressed a few dozen members of Teens Against Tobacco Use and several dozen bystanders to promote Murkowski's tobacco tax proposal.
The governor is proposing to double the state's $1-per-pack tax, which would give it the second-highest tobacco tax in the country. New Jersey's tax is $2.05.
Murkowski told the crowd the proposed increase is intended to discourage teenagers from smoking.
"Some people will choose to buy them anyway," Murkowski said. "So make the decision now not to start smoking."
Gilbertson said the administration believes the tax will cause a 15 percent reduction in teens who start smoking. He said that would translate to thousands fewer deaths from smoking-related illnesses down the road.
Gilbertson said tobacco-related diseases are the top cause of death in Alaska.
The proposal has been introduced in bills in the House and the Senate.
The governor was interrupted by a lone heckler, Juneau resident Tim J. Shockley, 21, who walked into the street with a cigarette in his hand and asked why Murkowski didn't crack down on welfare abuse rather than targeting smokers to raise revenue.
"How about you quit wasting government money?" Shockley said.
"We're cracking down on the people that abuse welfare and other abuses and we're cracking down today on tobacco," Murkowski told the man. "And we're going to start with you."
Murkowski asked him to remember who would need to take care of him if he contracted a smoking illness.
Shockley, who later said he smokes less than a pack a day, also said he thinks the proposal unfairly discriminates against smokers.
"They're singling out a group of people and making them pay more for doing something that's perfectly legal," he said.
The teenagers decorated the Capitol steps with signs that said, "If you must smoke, smoke fish," and waved placards reading, "Don't get hooked on the wrong kind of bait."
Juneau-Douglas High School sophomore Clay Wertheimer, 16, said he believes the tax would reduce smoking among his peers.
"There are statistics that show the tax does decrease smoking rates," Wertheimer said.
Jennifer App of the American Heart Association said studies have shown a 10 percent tax increase translates to a 7 percent decrease in the number of kids that start smoking.
Jack Manning, the owner of Duck Creek Market in the Mendenhall Valley, said he did not notice any decrease in cigarette sales the last time the state raised its tobacco tax. But he said he was concerned about bootlegging.
"When you're more expensive than the other states around you, there will be a lot of cigarettes that come up here and the state won't benefit from the tax. It will be like, 'When you're down in Seattle, get me a carton,'" Manning said.
Masha Herbst can be reached at email@example.com.
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