Cigarette Tax Proposal Brings Strong Opinions From Both Sides

Franque Thompson

OMAHA (KPTM)- City council will vote today on the proposed tobacco tax. If it passes, the money will help build a new cancer center at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. UNMC explained how the center could help the community, but the Nebraska Retail Grocers Association detailed how it could hurt it.

"Cancer is stressful. From the moment you hear the diagnosis, until you start your treatments, throughout your treatments." Said breast cancer survivor and UNMC patient Maggie Lehning.

For cancer patients and survivors like Lehning, a new cancer center is more than just another facility at UNMC.

"Anything that adds to that is really just much more than many patients can deal with successfully," said Lehning.

She says consolidating all UNMC cancer facilities into one building would eliminate the three-block travel between buildings. Officials say that since the project will take 15 years in construction, this will also give plenty of job opportunities.

"It will hold more workers and more crafts and trades than any other type of project. It is absolutely the best thing you could ask for," said Terry Moore of the Omaha Federation of Labor.

But $370 million is needed to build the 695,000 square foot project near 45th street in between Farnam and Leavenworth streets. That's where the 4.5 percent cigarette tax comes into play.

Still in favor of the new center, Council member Jean Stothert says a new way to fund the building needs to be reviewed. She says the city is about $500 million in debt on top of a $2 billion sewer project to pay for.

At a public hearing Stothert explained, "I think we need to take care of our own needs first before we impose a new tax to pay for a new building for the medical center."

Those against the tax say not only will it affect hundreds of small businesses but supermarkets as well. Take no frills in Council Bluffs for example. Officials say they're living proof.

"Back in 2007, the state of Iowa increased prices a dollar a pack. And we saw a dramatic loss of tobacco revenue from our store over there. Over 50 percent loss in tobacco revenues in a three year span, said Executive Financial Officer of No Frills Steve Moskovits.

Those opposing the tax, like Moskovits, are hoping history doesn't repeat itself. They'll find out soon enough, starting with today's vote.

The Douglas County Board of Commissioners already approved chipping in $5 million over the next 10 years. It will come from the county's inheritance tax, which brought in nearly $12 million dollars last year.