Split the tax burden between Ky.’s two biggest public-health threats

Column by Mark Wetherington

Unfortunately for current and future college students in Kentucky, it appears that our government is preparing to defeat progressive legislation that would benefit a majority of residents.

Despite the support of many members of the House, the office of Gov. Steve Beshear has made it clear that he does not support a proposed 70-cent tax increase on cigarettes. The revenue generated by this tax would provide income to help alleviate our state’s budget deficit and possibly provide money to higher education that would otherwise have to be cut, as was noted in the Kernel on Monday.

Senate members were also cited as being opposed to the legislation, presumably to avoid any controversy that would jeopardize their chances for re-election in November. This desperate attempt to maintain the status quo and allow political ambition and partisan agendas to so deeply influence policies that affect the health and educational opportunities of Kentuckians is pathetic, although not surprising.

However, it is the message that will be sent by not passing this legislation that is the most deplorable. In effect, Steve Beshear and those sharing his stance on this crucial issue would like to allow Kentucky’s cigarette tax to remain among the lowest in the nation while public universities are forced to raise tuition and enter hiring freezes. Put simply, they favor cheap cigarettes at the expense of public education.

However, perhaps due to my disappointment on how I see my tax dollars currently being spent, I remain skeptical of any tax increase that views a solitary group as an opportunity to solve financial problems that would have been avoided by any responsible administration. It is not fair to solely burden smokers and tobacco farmers under the banner of providing funds for higher education and positively impacting the health of Kentuckians.

While tobacco is certainly among the leading causes of health problems in Kentucky, obesity is also at the top of that list and should be addressed in legislation as soon as possible.

In my opinion, the best way to do this would be to split the proposed tax increase into a 35-cent-per-pack cigarette tax and a 35-cent-per-meal fast-food tax.

Neither the industries nor their consumers would be overburdened by this increase — and Kentuckians would be forced to recognize and consider the negative effects that cigarettes and fatty processed foods have on our quality of life. At the same time, the money generated would allow Kentucky’s universities to proceed with their scheduled budgets, and Kentucky Educational Excellence Scholarship money would be available to the students who depend on it for tuition, textbooks or rent.

Kentucky is home to tobacco, bourbon, thoroughbred racehorses and Kentucky Fried Chicken. These things are recognized and associated with our state all over the world, and are a source of pride and pleasure for many Kentuckians.

By failing to increase taxes on a lethal product like cigarettes and letting obesity steadily rise in our state, we not only have something to be ashamed of, but also risk emphasizing a misconception held by many outside the state: Kentuckians are unhealthy and uneducated, and they don’t care much about fixing either one.

Mark Wetherington is a journalism junior. E-mail [email protected].