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Oregon bill would raise cigarette tax $1 a pack

SALEM — Raising cigarette taxes by $1 a pack would make it too expensive for some minors to take up smoking, public health advocates told an Oregon legislative panel Tuesday in urging the increase.

The House Revenue Committee heard public testimony on cigarette taxes but took no action.

"Cigarettes are unsafe at any level of consumption," Bud Pierce, a Salem oncologist and president of the Oregon Medical Association, told the committee. "We need to take this step and move forward, do all we can to make people not smoke. Paying more money makes people not smoke."

Critics said the tax hike would be particularly harmful to people with low incomes, who smoke at much higher rates than the wealthy, and to businesses that sell tobacco products.

"This is an extremely regressive tax on Oregonians," said Mark Nelson, a lobbyist for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and 7-Eleven Inc., whose convenience stores sell about $400 million worth of cigarettes each year in Oregon.

Taxing a product that people are addicted to might encourage them to forgo other spending that could improve their health to pay for their addiction, said Rep. Jason Conger, R-Bend.

"I see a real moral hazard in this issue," Conger said, noting he's not opposed to pricing cigarettes out of the reach of young people.

At $1.18 a pack, Oregon's tobacco tax ranks 29th in the country and below the national average of $1.49, said Colleen Hermann-Franzen, advocacy and communications manager at the American Lung Association.

The tax hike would discourage children from smoking and also would encourage some adults to quit smoking or smoke fewer cigarettes, she said.

Because it raises revenue, an increase in the cigarette tax would require support from three-fifths of the House and Senate, which would require bipartisan support in the Democrat-controlled Senate.

Rep. Vicki Berger, of Salem, the top Republican on the Revenue committee, told The Associated Press that the measure would be a tough sell among Republicans.