A House committee on Wednesday endorsed a bill that would raise cigarette prices and dedicate medical marijuana tax revenue to help bring a National Cancer Institute designation to the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.
The House Rules Committee passed in a split voice vote House Bill 1565 by Rep. Andy Davis, R-Little Rock, over objections from the American Cancer Society, American Heart Association and American Lung Association.
The bill would raise an estimated $10.5 million, Davis said, to help UAMS establish and maintain a National Cancer Institute-designated facility.
It would raise the money by dedicating receipts from the sales and special privilege taxes on medical marijuana, increasing the required mark-up on cigarettes and levying an additional 50-cent tax on packs of cigarette papers.
The bill would also raise the minimum age to buy tobacco products from 18 to 21 by the end of 2021 with an exemption for military members.
"The important thing is we get [National Cancer Institute] funding, and we get it funded now," Davis said, addressing concerns about the bill that were raised. "Many of the other policy initiatives continue to be debated and changed down the road if needed. But it's important we get the funding now, so our loved ones can get treatment at home."
There has been a bipartisan effort in the General Assembly this session to pursue National Cancer Institute recognition for UAMS' Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute.
UAMS Chancellor Dr. Cam Patterson told the committee on Wednesday that the designation was important because it would open access to a variety of drugs and clinical trials to patients in Arkansas that aren't now available in the state. UAMS hopes to privately raise about $30 million toward the designation.
There are 70 National Cancer Institute-designated facilities in 36 states but none in Arkansas.
"That means there's two kinds of people in the state of Arkansas: those who can afford to go out of state to get the care that they need," Patterson said. "Those who have to stay here and can't get the best care possible."
Michael Keck, Arkansas government relations director for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, and others who spoke against the bill on Wednesday said they were supportive of the National Cancer Institute designation for UAMS, but they told the committee that HB1565 contained several flaws.
Keck said that lawmakers should strike a provision from the legislation that precludes cities and counties from further regulating tobacco sales.
Opponents of the bill also spoke against the minimum age for tobacco buying being phased in over two years. They also took issue with a provision that would decrease the tax rate on "modified risk tobacco products," which are being studied by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
"It is very difficult for me to say that we must express our opposition to this bill because the bill is tied to some very significant tobacco policy issues for which there is great disagreement," Keck said.
Davis said that the minimum-buying age would be phased in over several years to be fair to 18- to 20-year-olds who have already started using tobacco products.
The language preempting local regulation and reducing taxes on modified risk tobacco products was included to minimize opposition from tobacco retailers and prevent state regulators from having to deal with multiple sets of enforcement standards, Davis said. The Little Rock Republican said the bill would struggle to pass with opposition from tobacco retailers.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson in an interview Wednesday afternoon called the bill "balanced," adding that he supports it.
Davis said he expects the full House of Representatives to vote on the bill today.
Information for this article was contributed by Jeannie Roberts of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
A Section on 03/07/2019