Omaha City Council Raises Taxes on Tobacco

Meghan McRoberts


Omaha City Council voted 5-2 to approve a 3% tax increase to cigarettes and tobacco products Tuesday.

The tax aims to raise $35 million for a new cancer center at The University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha over the next 10 years.

Dr. Kenneth Cowan with UNMC says this will help advance the work and treatments for patients that come to Omaha. "We really appreciate everybody being aware of how important this cancer center is and wanting to be a part of it. We can now go to the private community and raise the rest of the money to make sure this is completed on time, as fast as possible, hire as many people to build it, then help as many patients as we can as soon as it's built," Cowan said.

Supporters say it will boost Omaha's economy and bring in thousands of new jobs. Some smokers say they have no problem paying more for their cigarettes.

"I, being a cigarette smoker, of all people you think I'd be nuts about it. But, I think it's an excellent choice. I think it supports the very thing that goes against what were doing. Were smoking cigarettes, so if 30 cents is going to make a difference for us down the road, medically, by all means, let it be. Who knows, it might stop some of us from smoking," said smoker Joy Netter.

Council member Jean Stothert voted against the tax. Stothert said the City has too many other financial obligations and debt, and shouldn't raise taxes or fees for every new project. "I'm not happy with the results. Yes, we want the med center to build the cancer center. I do believe it would have been built with or without the extra tax in Omaha," explained Stothert.

Stothert suggested bringing the tax to a public vote, or delaying the vote long enough to make sure the tax wouldn't raise too much money. If it were to raise more than $6 million in revenue each year, it would have to go to a public vote. Both suggestions were voted down.

"I think if we would have taken some time and examined other ways that we could partner with the med center to make this happen quickly, that would have been the more fiscally responsible thing to do rather than jump right into another tax," said Stothert.

Some small business owners worry that the tax will turn away customers to other nearby cities with cheaper prices. "Ill just go across the county line and get my cigarettes," said smoker Jennifer Ignowski.

Stothert said more than 16,000 signatures were collected in petitions against the tax.

"They could have done taxes any other way rather than just targeting cigarette smokers. I think it's ridiculous," Ignowski continued.

UNMC officials say the project is expected to break ground April 1, 2013.