Friday, May 29, 2009

Smokeless tobacco tax for Texas doctor shortage

In Texas, a weight-based tax on smokeless tobacco was passed by the Senate this week, Emily Ramshaw reports for the Trail Blazers political blog of the Dallas Morning News. The bill is unique because a portion of the $105 million it is expected to raise over the next two years will cover student loans of approximately 450 young doctors in exchange for their commitment to work in parts of the state that have a dire shortage of health professionals. Jim Vertuno reports for the Houston Chronicle that federal guidelines call for one doctor per 3,500 people. In Texas, 114 of the 254 counties do not meet that standard and more than 5.5 million Texans live in underserved rural and border areas.

Opponents of the bill argue its intrusion on personal rights and unfairly targeting smokers. "It sounds to me like we're interfering in the free marketplace, and that destroys competition," Republican Sen. Mike Jackson said Tuesday night. Rep. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, who carried the bill in the Senate, argued that it makes tobacco companies equally accountable for taxes. Earlier in May, he told Robert T. Garrett and Christy Hoppe of the Dallas paper that the physician shortage is the priority. "We need 4,000 doctors out there right now. If we don't start helping them repay their huge college loans, we'll never satisfy that need. And instead, all these sick people end up going to the big cities and using their emergency rooms."

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