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HELENA — Some health advocacy groups on Monday said they are supporting a draft bill to raise the state tax on cigarettes by $1.50 a pack to boost it to $3.20 a pack.

Montana’s current cigarette tax of $1.70 a pack ranks 22nd highest nationally and hasn’t been raised since 2005, backers said. The national average cigarette tax among the states is $1.63 per pack.

The forthcoming bill, by Sen. Mary Caferro, D-Helena, also would raise taxes on smokeless tobacco by similar amounts and impose a new tax on e-cigarettes.

Backers said the bill is expected to generate about $44 million in annual revenue to help fund home health care, hospice and other programs that are facing deep funding legislative cuts this year and affect cancer patients, the elderly, family caregivers and many other Montanans.

“We all think this is a win-win for Montana,” said Kristin Page Nei of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network. “Significantly raising the price of tobacco products is one of the best ways to prevent kids from starting a deadly addiction and help current users to quit.”

She cited a phone survey of 500 Montana voters done in mid-December for the groups by Moore Information, a national polling firm. It showed that 77 percent favored a $1.50 per pack increase in the state cigarette tax and an equivalent increase on all other tobacco products, provided the revenue went to programs to reduce tobacco use, especially among kids, with the rest going to fund health programs. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent.

Caferro, who serves on the budget subcommittee overseeing the budget for the Department of Health and Human Services, decried the cuts approved so far by the majority of subcommittee members.

“We are in a crisis in Health and Human Services,” she said, adding that she won’t support a cigarette tax increase that is less than $1.50 a pack. “This is as low as we can go to stop the bleeding.”

Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock will be proposing a cigarette tax increase of 50 cents a pack, along with similar increases in smokeless tobacco and a new tax on e-cigarettes.

His bill hasn’t been introduced yet, but estimates from the governor’s office is that it would raise $23.6 million in general fund revenue over three years and $30.7 million in various state special revenues.

Dr. Robert Shepard, a retired Helena physician, read a long list of illnesses associated with tobacco use.

“Tobacco has a huge impact on health care, a cost only partially borne by smokers,” he said.

In Montana, tobacco use costs $440 million in annual health care expenses and causes 28 percent of all cancer deaths in the state, Page Nei said.

She called Caferro’s bill a “triple win” that will save lives, save money and raise revenue.

Claudia Clifford, advocacy director for AARP Montana, said the Joint Appropriations Subcommittee on Public Health and Human Services has made “some devastating cuts” to services for senior citizens.

So far, the subcommittee has made $84 million in cuts in all funds to Medicaid senior services, Clifford said.

The state also faces a huge shortage of direct care workers in nursing homes and for other senior services because the pay is so low.

The Chronicle’s attempts to get a comment from the tobacco industry were unsuccessful Monday.

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