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Unalaska Considers Raising Sales Tax On Tobacco

Lindsay Fox Via Flickr Creative Commons

By next fall, Unalaskans may pay more for cigarettes and other tobacco products.

The City Council is considering an increase to the existing three percent tax on local tobacco sales, following an appeal from the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association last week.

"Tobacco taxes generate income and improve the quality of health for the community," said Caroline Nevak, a tobacco prevention coordinator at the nonprofit. 

Nevak pointed to more than a dozen Alaska communities — including Bethel, Juneau, and Sitka — that have passed price increases in recent years. She said higher taxes are helping them to reduce local use of cancer-causing tobacco.

In response, the majority of Unalaska's council expressed support for the idea, particularly if the revenue is earmarked for health and education programs at the clinic or school district.

"I think the whole goal is to get people in a healthier environment and to quit smoking," said Councilor Shari Coleman. "Not just to collect revenue."

Councilor Roger Rowland said he's waiting to hear from Unalaskans before taking a position. But he did argue that putting tax revenue towards extra programs shouldn't serve as a substitute for full financial support.

"Because in general, when things like this come up, we say, 'Oh, we're going to use this for education.' Then magically, we don't take as much from the general fund to spend on education," he said. "I'm not sure I can [justify] that argument."

The council did not propose a specific number, but any increase would have to be approved by Unalaskans at the next municipal election in October of 2019.

Last year, voters rejected a council-sponsored ballot measure to double the local sales tax on alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana. That measure did not specify how revenue would be spent and failed by 35 votes.

Several councilors said the new proposal might fare better, as it would only target tobacco and include a plan for revenue.

Mayor Frank Kelty also suggested that the city raise the tax by a certain dollar amount per pack of cigarettes, as opposed to a percentage increase. That way, he said, Unalaskans could wrap their minds are the price change more easily.

The City Council's next meeting is Dec. 11.

Laura Kraegel reported for KUCB from 2016 until 2020. She was KUCB's news director starting in 2019. We are proud to have her back in the spring of 2023 filling in as an interim reporter for KUCB.
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