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Bill with significant impact on smokers unanimously clears Indiana House panel vote

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. -- A bill that would greatly impact Indiana smokers sails through its first vote.

Today, the public health committee heard hours of testimony about legislation that would increase the tax on cigarettes and the legal smoking age.

If it makes it through the general assembly, the cigarette tax would go up 150 percent, up by $1.50 to $2.50. Hoosiers also wouldn’t be able to legally buy, possess or smoke them until they’re 21.

The bill’s author, Cindy Kirchhofer of District 89, was shocked to hear nearly two hours of passionate testimony, almost all of it in support of the bill.

“In people who smoke, 95 percent of those people start before the age of 21,” said Dr. Katherine McHugh, a faculty OBGYN for IU Health, Methodist and Eskenazi. “This tax may reduce the number of people who start smoking to begin with.”

McHugh testified to the impact of smoking on the patients she sees.

“Smoking causes or can account for up to ten percent of all of the infant deaths in Indiana,” said McHugh.

Indiana’s infant mortality rate is ranked 49th out of 50 states.

If the tax and age restrictions cause fewer pregnant women to smoke, Dr. McHugh believes the effects will be widespread.

“By reducing smoking, by reducing exposure to babies for smoke, we could potentially impact an incredible number of people,” said McHugh. “We could reduce stillbirth rates. We can reduce low birth infants and we can reduce overall infant deaths by even up to ten percent.”

Nearly everyone joined McHugh in supporting the bill.

Many touted possible health benefits and the state Chamber of Commerce testified to the abnormally high healthcare costs for businesses in Indiana due to high rates of smoking. O

One group though, the Indiana Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association, isn’t happy about the bill at all.

“We see people drive across town, on gasoline, to save 5 cents a gallon,” said Scot Imus, the IPCA’s executive director. “They’re certainly going to do it on tobacco products.”

Imus says while employers may end up spending less on healthcare costs, their members would be hit hard by the loss in sales.

He predicts the price difference between Indiana and Kentucky will bring back bootleggers.

“Three dollars difference per carton, not really enough to incentivize somebody to go out perhaps and break the law and sell on the black market,” said Imus of the current cigarette price differential between Indiana and Kentucky. “Nineteen dollars a carton, however, will bring the black market back.”

McHugh is a fervent believer that any consequences are outweighed by the overall population’s health improvements and more specifically, the potential to save hundreds of babies’ lives every year and their mothers.

“My patients have a much greater risk for stillbirth and low birth weight and for SIDS—Sudden Infant Death Syndrome,” said McHugh. “This matters to my patients so it matters to me.”

The bill’s author, Cindy Kirchhofer did offer an amendment in response to objections over 18-year-olds being able to enlist in the military, but not smoke.

Kirchhofer’s provision would’ve allowed them to buy before turning 21 years old with a military ID.

The committee though, voted unanimously to pass it without the amendment as Kirchhofer preferred.

The full house will vote next.