LISTEN: Georgia has the second lowest state tobacco tax in the nation. One lawmaker says raising that tax to match the federal average will not only increase revenue but improve the health of Georgians. GPB’s Ellen Eldridge reports.

A woman lights a cigarette

Increasing Georgia's tax on tobacco products would bring needed revenue to the state, and help prevent smoking-related health issues, Dr. Michelle Au, a state representative, says.

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Georgia's tobacco tax is the second-lowest in the nation, behind only Missouri.

A previous study by the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute showed that raising the tax per pack of cigarettes to match the national average would help cover the increased costs of health care from the effects of tobacco use.

Dr. Michelle Au, state representative for District 50

Dr. Michelle Au represents District 50 in the Georgia state House.

Credit: Ellen Eldridge / GPB News

In Medicaid costs alone, Georgia owes about $650 million a year for health care costs that are a direct consequence of smoking, GBPI policy analyst Danny Kanso said in 2020.

"We can get to an adequate level where right now we're only raising about $230 million a year from those 450 million packs of cigarettes that are sold," he said. "We could bump that number up significantly to at least cover the direct costs associated with smoking and to help fill part of that hole in our budget."

Despite passing a bill on the last day of the 2020 legislative session to tax vaping products for the first time, tobacco tax in Georgia was not raised.

Research shows smoking harms the entire body — not only the lungs. Georgians who use tobacco are also more vulnerable to stroke and vascular disease, Dr. Michelle Au, who represents District 50 in the state House.

Last session, she put together a committee to study the costs of smoking. She said she did that so the legislature would have data from its own body to consider.

"I wanted to do the homework to give the legislature an unavoidable way to need to look at this problem, and an unavoidable solution that it needed to examine," Au said Tuesday.

Not raising the tax on cigarettes amounts to a tax on nonsmokers, she said.

"Taking care of the health care costs of patients who do smoke amounts to something like $900 per household," Au said. "So, this is money that we are paying because of our high smoking rates, and it basically amounts to a subsidy incentivizing bad health behaviors."

Au said she had the bill to raise Georgia’s tax on cigarettes from 37 cents to $1.91 a pack ready-to-file in her bag on Tuesday.