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INDIANAPOLIS — Hoosiers overwhelmingly support boosting the state's cigarette tax by $2 per pack to reduce smoking rates, but so far state lawmakers appear uninterested in the estimated $358 million a year that the proposed tax hike would generate.

A Dec. 9-12 survey of 600 Indiana voters by Bellwether Research, conducted on behalf of the Raise It For Health campaign, found 70 percent of Hoosiers favor a $2 per pack cigarette tax hike, if a portion of the money is spent on tobacco use prevention programs.

Bellwether President Christine Matthews, the onetime pollster for Republican former Gov. Mitch Daniels, said the 70 percent mark is "consensus-level" support, which she noted "is very rare these days."

In addition, Matthews said there's unusually high intensity in favor of raising the tax as more than half of poll respondents (51 percent) said they "strongly" support increasing cigarette prices.

According to the poll results, which have a plus-or-minus 4 percent margin of error, support was stronger among women (74 percent) compared to men (65 percent), and higher among Democrats (80 percent) than Republicans (64 percent).

But a majority of GOP respondents said even if a Republican legislator took a "no new taxes" pledge, and later voted in favor of raising Indiana's cigarette tax, they still would support that legislator by a 54 percent to 36 percent margin.

Matthews explained that's because "voters don't view a hike in the price of cigarettes as a traditional tax."

"They see it as a user fee" since only people who purchase cigarettes are required to pay it, she said.

The poll found support for increasing the cigarette tax grows to 72 percent, with just 19 percent opposed, if voters are told the state will be forced to cut public health programs without the tax hike.

Strong majorities of voters said they'd also support increased cigarette tax revenue going to the Healthy Indiana Plan (79 percent), Department of Child Services (78 percent), elementary and high school education (78 percent) and teacher pay raises (75 percent).

"Indiana ranks among the states with the highest rate of smoking, along with Mississippi, Louisiana, Kentucky, West Virginia and Arkansas, and voters here do not like that at all. Eighty percent agree that this is not where Indiana wants to be," Matthews said.

"A $2 per pack increase will help the state combat (its) budget challenges, improve the state's workforce, make Hoosiers healthier and improve the state's standing compared with other states."

Uphill battle

That's exactly what the more than 200 health, business, youth and community organizations supporting the Raise It For Health campaign have been telling state lawmakers for months.

And yet, neither Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb, nor the Republican or Democratic House and Senate caucuses, have identified a cigarette tax hike as a top priority for the 2019 legislative session that began Jan. 3 and runs until April 29.

Bryan Hannon, Raise It For Health campaign chairman, said it was "a bit surprising and a bit disappointing" that no legislative caucus has indicated that it will be putting a major focus on Hoosier health issues this year.

"No matter whose agenda you're looking at, we see far too little emphasis on health, whether that's smoking or infant mortality or cancer death rates or whatever it is," Hannon said.

"I think that we've got to continue to remind them that health is connected to a whole bunch of other issues in the state. It's not just Hoosiers who may be making bad choices and they have to live with those. It has economic consequences to our Medicaid program and to business health care costs."

Precisely because businesses incur greater employee health care expenses due to smoking, the $2 per pack cigarette tax hike is strongly supported by the influential Indiana Chamber of Commerce, which also wants the minimum smoking age set at 21 instead of 18.

"Research has shown that significantly increasing what a pack of cigarettes costs and upping the legal age to smoke do yield positive results," said Kevin Brinegar, chamber president.

State Rep. Cindy Kirchhofer, R-Beech Grove, chairwoman of the House Public Health Committee, is expected to sponsor the $2 per pack cigarette tax hike legislation.

As a backup, state Rep. Mike Aylesworth, R-Hebron, said he will file a proposal for a $1 per pack cigarette tax increase.

Indiana's current cigarette tax rate is $0.995 per pack.

In Chicago, the cigarette tax is $6.16 per pack, with $1.98 going Illinois, $3 to Cook County and $1.18 to the city.

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Statehouse Bureau Chief

Dan is Statehouse Bureau Chief for The Times. Since 2009, he's reported on Indiana government and politics — and how both impact the Region — from the state capital in Indianapolis. He originally is from Orland Park, Ill.