House overrides Sanford's cigarette tax hike veto

Columbia, SC - COLUMBIA, SC (AP) - The nation's lowest cigarette tax is a step away from the first increase in 33 years, after the South Carolina House voted Wednesday to override Gov. Mark Sanford's veto.

The House voted 90-29 — 11 more than needed — to overturn the veto a day after the Republican governor rejected the bill to raise the 7-cents-per-pack tax, which hasn't changed since 1977.

The proposed 50-cents-per-pack increase still requires a two-thirds majority vote in the Senate to become law.

Tobacco opponents called it a historic victory.

"We're one step away from public health initiatives that will protect South Carolinians, keep kids from smoking, and in the long term help our state realize millions of dollars in health care savings," said Kelly Davis, spokeswoman for the South Carolina Tobacco Collaborative.

The House erupted in applause after the vote, two years after sustaining Sanford's veto on a previous bill to raise the tax to 57 cents. Sanford opposes raising the cigarette tax unless some other tax is equally decreased. He called it the state's largest tax increase in a generation.

Legislators want to use nearly $125 million from the higher tax to cover the loss of federal bailout cash next year in Medicaid programs for the elderly, disabled and poor. The measure also would generate $5 million each for cancer research and efforts to curb smoking and $1 million for agriculture marketing.

Opponents argued it would hurt businesses that sell cigarettes along the state border. Georgia's tax is 37 cents per pack, while North Carolina's is 45 cents. The national average is $1.41 per pack.

Noting his girth and appetite for the occasional cheeseburger, Rep. Joey Millwood asked whether taxing fast food would be next.

"When did it become government's role to tax you so you don't do something? That's the most ludicrous, insane thing I've heard in my life," asked Millwood, R-Landrum. "That's called big government. We're hurting businesses. This is crazy."

But the Legislature's only doctor, Rep. Kris Crawford, said like it or not, government uses taxes to encourage or discourage people from doing lots of things, and he sees nothing positive in tobacco use. The emergency room doctor had advocated raising the tax by $1 to make cigarettes unaffordable for more teens.

"You don't have to pay it. You just have to not buy cigarettes. They're not a necessity," said Crawford, R-Florence. "I would be happiest if we went to selling tobacco in red dot stores like liquor. There are substances that are illegal that are less bad for you than tobacco."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.