The Cigarette-Cancer Connection

Bob Jones
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Wednesday - February 22, 2006
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Two questions this week that are entwined:

Would you pay 23 cents for one cigarette?

And whatever happened to our Cancer Research Center of Hawaii, the one that was to co-anchor a majestic biomedical complex in Kakaako, be a magnet for grants and an oncology hospital for our people and wealthy foreigners?

Let me explain this cigarettes-and-cancer connection.

In our enthusiastic rush to erect the new UH medical school we let the new UH Cancer Research Center slip into the shadows.

There is a tenuous hold on the land for it. The UH Board of Regents OK’d a Mainland developer to finance construction in return for rent. But another year’s gone by and there are still no shovels in the dirt.

Meanwhile, the medical school’s operating cost has zoomed from $10 million a year to $22.5 million. The cancer center will require an additional $10 million a year (you can’t pay operating costs such as rent with federal grant money.)

So the UH’s cancer facility director, Dr. Carl-Wilhelm Vogel, wants the Legislature to OK a tax increase of 9 cents per cigarette (not just per pack) next year, 11 cents per cigarette in 2008 and 13 cents per cigarette in 2009. (The lawmakers are calling it a “user fee” but let’s not fib - it’s a tax on cigarette smokers. We could call the excise tax a “user fee”, too, because if you don’t buy or sell anything you don’t pay it.)

The Senate Health Committee has said yes to this tax. At least 19 senators are signed on going into Way and Means. But will the State House and Governor Lingle dare endorse a tax increase in an election year of surpluses?

Fifty percent of the take (probably $10 million worth) would go to the cancer center, 25 percent for state health and disease prevention programs and 25 percent into the tobacco control trust fund.

Eleven other states raised their cigarette taxes last year. We’re currently adding $1.40 a pack. New Jersey is tops at $2.40 a pack. South Carolina (tobacco country) is lowest at 7 cents a pack.

We’d go up to $2.30 tax per pack next year under the proposal from Vogel and the sponsoring senators - Baker, Hee, Hanabusa, Fukunaga, English, Hooser, Chun Oakland, Tsutsui, Sakamoto, Kokubun, Kim, Bunda, Kanno, Ihara, Espero, Taniguchi, Inouye, Menor and Nishihara.

If the lawmakers and governor eventually say no, it’s going to be tough finding the operating funds for the One Big Cancer Idea pushed into the background in the rush to get that new medical school going.

Sure it’s nice to have a spiffy new medical school, but did anyone anticipate that zoom in operating cost? It comes out of the UH’s general funds.

Might we have been smarter to have stayed a while with the old Manoa medical school and put our first dollars into the national cancer center and biomedical research facilities looking at new drugs?

Sorry, too late. Former UH presidents Mortimer and Dobelle and former Gov. Cayetano rushed forward with the medical school. Now we have it and must pay for it.

Paying for the cancer center with cigarette money rather than from the pinched UH budget makes logical sense - if you’re not a cigarette smoker and not up for election (half the senators) this fall.

Of course, we could just dump out of being one of 61 elite national cancer centers in America.

Or perhaps fund it with some of the income generated from the Navy’s university-affiliated research center.

UH president David McClain has recommended going forward with UARC, and the regents are likely to agree. The best argument for that comes from former UH president Fujio Matsuda and is archived at:

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