(Bloomington) Herald-Times

A bill working its way through the state legislature that would increase Indiana’s cigarette tax, raise the legal age for smoking and limit smokers’ rights when it comes to the work place should be supported for the benefit of the state’s overall health.

Republican Rep. Cindy Kirchhofer, R-Beech Grove, is promoting the measure as a Healthy Indiana bill, rather than a revenue-generating bill. That’s a good way to look at it.

If Indiana lawmakers are seriously concerned about the health of Hoosiers, then they must do what they can to discourage smoking. The $1.50 per pack tax increase proposal would certainly do that. The Indiana Legislative Services Agency estimates that level of increase would cause the number of packs sold to drop by 14 percent.

That can’t be the only side of this legislative coin, however. The money raised by this new tax must be put into cessation programs that would help people kick the nicotine addiction that keeps them smoking, and into educational and advertising programs that would work to keep people from starting in the first place.

In other words, this tax can’t be seen as a big slush fund collected on the backs of smokers to be used toward a grab bag of legislative funding requests. Now, Indiana falls far short of allocating the roughly $75 million toward tobacco cessation and prevention programs the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends, and the first priority for the tax should be to fully fund the CDC recommended amount. With a projected $406 million anticipated if the tax is collected, there still would be money left over for other uses.

Raising the smoking age to 21 would not stop under-aged smoking any more than the 21-year-old drinking age stops under-aged drinking. But it would be a deterrent, and thus would be worthwhile.

The bill also would repeal what’s called the “Smoker’s Bill of Rights,” which essentially treats smokers as a protected class when it comes to employment. Under the law passed in 1991, employers can’t refuse to hire smokers and can’t charge them higher premiums for health insurance. Indiana’s smoking rate compared to other states has consistently worsened since the bill passed.

The amount of the tax may be negotiable, but the need for this bill is clear. The General Assembly should pass it, for the health of Hoosiers.

This was distributed by Hoosier State Press Association. Send comments to awoods@tribtown.com.