Jeffrey Slinker started smoking at the age of 10. He quit after 25 years but was diagnosed with mouth cancer six years later. CNHI News Indiana staff photo by Scott L. Miley
Jeffrey Slinker started smoking at the age of 10. He quit after 25 years but was diagnosed with mouth cancer six years later. CNHI News Indiana staff photo by Scott L. Miley
INDIANAPOLIS — Jeffrey Slinker felt like he was a hypocrite, being a smoker while showing sixth-grade students an anti-smoking film.

“I had to lead the discussion afterwards and I was dying for a cigarette,” said Slinker, who was then a substitute teacher in Fortville.

A smoker for 25 years beginning at age 10, Slinker ended his habit. 

Six years later, doctors found cancer above his upper teeth. Radiation led to the loss of his teeth, the upper roof of his mouth and parts of his jaw and upper cheek. He now wears a denture-like prosthetic.

This week, Slinker was among a group of Hoosiers seeking a $2-a-pack increase in cigarette taxes, up from 99.5 cents. Such an increase could raise $358 million in new revenue for the state during its first year. Tobacco use kills 30 Hoosiers a day, amounting to 11,000 deaths a year, officials said.

Legislators have discussed increasing the cigarette tax but have taken no action this session. The General Assembly’s last day, known as sine die, is at the end of April.

“We need to raise the level of urgency that this year is the year to do it, this is the year to raise the cigarette tax. In a budget year, things aren’t dead until sine die,” said Nick Torres of the American Lung Association, whose mother died from a smoking-related illness.

Indiana ranks 44th for its percentage of smokers and 41st for overall health, a drop of three spots since last year.

"Our entire health rankings as a state went down last year primarily because of the fact that our tobacco use went up," said Dr. Paul Halverson, founding dean of the Indiana University Richard M. Fairbanks School of Public Health.

"The reality is we're on the road to 50th. Our smoking rate, as it increases, it's very conceivable for us to be dead last," said Halverson, chairman of the Indiana Cancer Consortium. "That means thousands of Hoosiers are getting hurt and killed by tobacco every year." 

A recent telephone poll taken by Tobacco Free Indiana and its Raise It for Health campaign showed broad-based support among Hoosiers for raising the tax, with 70 percent in favor of the increase. Fifty-one percent supported a $2-a-pack increase if part of the revenue were designated for tobacco prevention programs to keep children from using tobacco and help smokers quit.

By political party, an increase was supported by 80 percent of Democrats, 64 percent of Republicans and 57 percent of independents.

“So we know that our issue is the right thing to do from a policy standpoint. It’s also a great fiscal base to provide an increase in funding for prevention,” Torres said.

In urging lawmakers to raise the cigarette tax, Slinker was joined by Amy Lutz of Westfield, whose parents died within 31 days of each other from cancer due to smoking, and Madeline Wilson of Martinsville, whose brother died of cancer.

"Let's make smoking expensive, let's make smoking inconvenient, and let's make smoking history," Lutz told a Statehouse gathering.

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