Voters pass tobacco tax by nearly 2-to-1 margin

Posted: Wednesday, October 08, 2003

Tobacco tax proponents exhaled a sigh of relief Tuesday night as voters overwhelmingly approved an ordinance that could raise up to $300,000 annually for the city.

The ordinance, passed by an almost 2-to-1 margin, will implement a flat 30-cent tax on cigarettes. Now smokers pay a 6 percent excise tax on cigarettes, about 15 cents per pack.

It also doubles the excise tax on all other tobacco products from 6 percent to 12 percent. The ordinance takes effect Jan. 1.

Sixty-five percent of the voters said yes to the tax increase, and about 35 percent voted no, according to unofficial results released by the city.

Supporters of the tax increase have argued that making cigarettes more expensive will deter teens from smoking and encourage those who do smoke to quit.

Mayor-elect Bruce Botelho said it is too early to say how much of the money will be used for smoking cessation and addiction programs and how much will go toward filling the city's $2 million-plus budget deficit.

"I think the expectation of the public is that the money target cessation programs," Botelho said Tuesday night at election central.

The money collected from the tobacco tax is expected go to community block grants for social service programs. But money in the community block grant program could be shifted to the general fund to offset the deficit.

The block grant program is to contain about $582,300 in 2004.

Matt Felix, executive director for the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence in Juneau, has been a vocal proponent of increasing the tobacco tax.

Tuesday night he held up a copy of the election results while yelling to a friend, "we're going to put this on our wall in glass."

He said his organization will be watching closely to make sure money raised by the tax increase is used for chemical-dependence programs.

"They could shift the money out of the block grants, but they wouldn't dare," Felix said, noting that Juneau has a severe problem with alcohol and nicotine abuse.

Assembly member Jim Powell didn't say how much - if any - of the money would be used to cover the deficit but noted that some could be put in the general fund to help fund city services related to substance abuse.

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