BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - Rep. Harold Ritchie is a cigarette smoker of 50 years. Now, he wants his fellow smokers to pay up to keep lighting up.
"50 years ago, I was probably 15-years-old. We were sitting there watching the Marlboro Man ride off into the sunset. That picture has changed for me. When I ride off into the sunset now, I see myself on the three-wheel scooter with an oxygen bottle," said Rep. Ritchie, D-Bogalusa.
Ritchie's bill to raise the state's cigarette tax passed a house committee Monday, but not before some changes. HB 119 was amended from a tax hike of $1.54 a pack, which is the national average, to 68 cents, matching Mississippi.
"We haven't raised our tobacco tax since 2002, thirteen years. I think it's about time," said Rep. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge
Several health experts from the American Lung and Heart Associations also support a raise.
"Lung cancer alone is the equivalent deaths of a 747 crashing every single month," said Dr. Jay Brooks with the American Heart Association.
Doctors say raising the cigarette tax will lower tobacco use, and economists say a tax of 68 cents per pack will bring in $67 million every year. However, there are small business owners, like former state senator Fred Hoyt, who say hiking the cigarette tax will hurt business.
"You can't legislate personal responsibility," said Hoyt.
Hoyt even referenced Eric Garner, the New York man choked to death by police last year after selling untaxed cigarettes. Hoyt says Garner would still be alive without a high cigarette tax influencing his illegal behavior.
Rep. Barrow reacted in opposition to Hoyt's testimony.
"Mr. Hoyt, I'm offended that you used Eric Garner as an example," said Rep. Barrow.
Rep. Ritchie did not oppose the committee chairman's motion to not raise the tax even higher. He hopes if the bill advances to the senate, it will be increased to what he's asking for.
There was one more amendment added to the bill before it passed, that all proceeds from the tax hike would go to Medicaid.
All arguments come while Gov. Jindal says he won't support any tax increases unless hikes are offset by corresponding spending cuts.