In the war on smoking, some states prefer taking the tobacco industry to court. Alaska is considering a blunter weapon: taxes.
A proposal to add $1 to the current 29-cent-a-pack levy would give Alaska the highest tobacco tax by far and has remarkable support in a state that ranks second in the nation in adult smoking. The tax has been championed by everyone from the Democratic governor to former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop. But its passage is hardly guaranteed in a Republican-led statehouse where GOP leaders are sticking to a pledge of "No new taxes."
The idea of a huge tobacco tax, some 50 times higher than the two- and three-penny levies charged in Virginia and Kentucky, was originally introduced this year as part of a long-term plan to plug the fiscal gap left by dwindling oil revenues.
A bipartisan panel recommended hikes in the state's motor fuel and alcohol taxes as well, along with the eventual return of the personal-income tax that was repealed in 1980 when Alaska was flush with new oil money.
But the tobacco tax picked up momentum as a way to curb a rise in teenage smoking. Studies show that if cigarette prices are increased by 10 percent, the rate of consumption of cigarettes among teens is likely to decline by up to 12 percent. The Journal of the American Medical Association estimated that doubling current cigarette taxes would reduce the number of teen smokers by 800,000.
"I think it's a responsible public policy to discourage public smoking everywhere," says Gov. Tony Knowles, who as mayor of Anchorage in the 1980s made his city the first in the nation to ban smoking in all public buildings.
"The scene that you see now all across the country of people having to go outside the building to smoke first happened in Anchorage," says Mr. Knowles, himself a former smoker. "And I got some cold stares from municipal workers as I walked into [city hall] in the wintertime as they were forced to stand outside."