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Cuyahoga County voters to decide whether to fund arts with cigarette tax hike

Close up of hands pulling a cigarette out of a box.
If approved, smokers would pay about 40 cents more per pack. The new amount is estimated to generate about $160 million over the next decade.

Cuyahoga County voters will decide this fall whether to more than double the tax on cigarettes to support the county’s arts and culture fund.

County Council voted Tuesday to move the proposal, which would raise the tax from 1.5 cents to 3.5 cents per cigarette, to the November ballot to bolster the fund as smoking rates decline.

If approved, smokers would pay about 40 cents more per pack. The new amount is estimated to generate about $160 million over the next decade.

The fund is distributed by Cuyahoga Arts & Culture.

Executive Director Jill Paulson said last year, the fund supported about 300 arts nonprofits, including Ideastream Public Media, and more than 8,000 jobs – a number they hope to grow, or at least maintain, with the tax hike. To date, Paulson said CAC has doled out $246 million to over 485 nonprofits.

"We cannot discount the amount of work that the arts and cultural sector plays to public safety, to our neighborhood development, to our quality of life," said Jeremy Johnson, the president and CEO of Assembly for the Arts, an advocacy group for the local sector.

Some council members suggested tapping into other funding sources in the future as smoking is on the decline, and because of concerns over capitalizing on poor health choices.

"I truly believe that as I look out here at this audience, there's probably not a single a single cigarette smoker that took that microphone and talked about this," said Councilmember Jack Schron of the presenters and public commenters at a Committee of the Whole meeting on May 28. "Which is kind of ironic that you're encouraging people to do a habit which you don't even encourage you and your children or anybody else to do. So I have really mixed mixed feelings about this."

Johnson pointed to research that suggests increasing taxes and pricing is an effective way to drive down smoking rates.

“One of the ways to tamp down smoking is taxes," he said. "It is a double-edged sword.”

As for other sustainable funding methods, Johnson said he and other arts leaders are keeping an eye on cannabis legislation in Columbus as another possible tax revenue stream going forward.

Abbey Marshall covers Cleveland-area government and politics for Ideastream Public Media.