Tobacco tax, other new laws coming soon

By Ed Brock

Georgia's new tobacco tax is nothing more than a nuisance to tobacco shop owner Bill Rogers.

Rogers, owner of Georgia Cigar & Tobacco 2 on Ga. Highway 85 in Riverdale will have to change all the stamps and price stickers on his inventory of pipe tobacco and cigars before the tax goes into effect on July 1.

And it won't do a thing to stop people from smoking, Rogers said.

"If they're going to do a tax they should have made it a tax and not just a hindrance," Rogers said.

The new tobacco tax is one of well over 100 new laws Gov. Sonny Perdue has signed into effect, some of which will affect the day to day lives of all residents of the state. Bingo players, limousine drivers and drivers of hybrid vehicles and personal watercraft operators will specifically be impacted by some of the laws while one law, Georgia House Bill 457, will affect all motorists using the state's highways.

That law will require drivers to take specific acts of caution when approaching any "authorized emergency, towing, recovery and highway maintenance vehicles" that are stopped on the side of road.

"I think that's a worthwhile law," Clayton County police spokesman Capt. Jeff Turner said. "We've had several officers hit from behind while they were sitting in their cars writing tickets."

Unless otherwise directed by a law enforcement officer, drivers who see the flashing lights of such vehicles ahead must change lanes away from where the vehicle is stopped. If they cannot change lanes, the driver must slow down to speeds below the speed limit and be prepared to stop. Failure to do so can be punished by a $500 fine.

The possibility of an even higher price already leads John Stallworth of Jonesboro to give stationary emergency vehicles a wide berth.

"I don't want to run into anybody," Stallworth said. "Then I'll have lawsuit on my hands."

Georgia House Bill 43 increases the excise fee on tobacco by 25 cents, from 12 cents to 37 cents according to Gov. Sonny Perdue's office. The excise fee on tobacco has not been raised in more than 30 years and the state now pays approximately $1.75 billion a year for smoking-related illnesses.

In 1971, the per capita income in Georgia was $3,600. By 2001, it had increased almost 800 percent to more than $28,700. If the tax had kept up with the Consumer Price Index, the current excise fee would be more than 50 cents per pack, according to the governor's office.

The money raised by the tax is not important said Stephen Ott of Fayetteville, a volunteer with the American Cancer Society.

"We had looked at it simply as a measure to curb young people from smoking, not just as a matter of getting revenue," Ott said.

Supporters of the law such as the ACS originally asked for a 75-cent tax increase. Rogers isn't the only person who thinks the tax should have been higher.

In a statement on the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids Web site, the organization's Executive Director William V. Corr also expressed disappointment in tax.

"Georgia would see even greater benefits if it raised the cigarette tax to 87 cents n the amount recommended by public health advocates n or if they adopted Gov. Perdue's original proposal to raise the cigarette tax to 58 cents a pack," Corr said in the statement. "By increasing the cigarette tax by 75 cents rather than 25 cents, Georgia would have raised an additional $278 million annually in new revenues, prevented some 62,300 more kids from becoming smokers, saved 28,800 more residents from smoking-caused deaths, and produced $1 billion more in long-term health care savings."

Ott said that statistics drawn from observing trends in other states showed that an increase in price curbed tobacco use, particularly by young people who are beginning to smoke.

But the new tax won't stop Rodney Davis of Jonesboro from smoking.

"If they added a dollar I'll still buy," Davis said.

Delores McCrary of Riverdale shared Davis' opinion.

"If people are going to smoke they'll pay whatever," McCrary said.

Other new laws include House Bill 279 that allows for the use of certain electronic or computer devices in playing bingo, House Bill 455 that requires limousine drivers to obtain and furnish annual safety inspection reports. Senate Bill 134 changes some of the general provisions for the registration, operation, sale and classification of watercraft. And House Bill 719 adds hybrid vehicles to the state's list of alternative fueled vehicles that can bear a special tag allowing them to use high occupancy vehicle lanes even when the driver is alone in the car.

The law defines a hybrid vehicle as "a motor vehicle which draws propulsion energy from onboard sources of stored energy which include an internal combustion or heat engine using combustible fuel and a rechargeable energy storage system."

Alternative fuels include methanol, denatured ethanol, and other alcohols, according to the law.