Seven in 10 American voters support a cigarette tax to pay for helping 4-year-olds from low- and moderate-income families get a good early education, according to a bipartisan poll released on Wednesday.
The 800 registered voters who were polled were told details of a plan President Barack Obama suggested in this year’s State of the Union speech seven months ago (story). Since then, it’s gotten no traction in Congress.
The pollsters told respondents that the plan would provide about $10 million per year for 10 years to states for voluntary access to preschool, as well as high-quality early child care and parent education. It would be paid for by a 94 cent per pack increase in the cigarette tax.
The poll found 70 percent support it (50 percent saying “strongly support,” and 20 percent saying “somewhat support), and 29 percent said they strongly or somewhat opposed it. The remaining 1 percent were unsure. The poll found 84 percent support among Democrats, 64 percent among independents and 60 percent among Republicans.
It was conducted July 8-11 by Hart Research, a company that polls for Democrats, and National Opinion Strategies, a company that polls for Republicans.
Early childhood education also ranked high in priorities, according to the poll. It found that 86 percent said that “making sure that our children get a strong start in life so they will perform better in school and succeed in their careers” was important. About the same number, 85 percent, said that improving the quality of public schools was important. The top priority, with 92 percent saying it was important, was increasing jobs and economic growth. The overall margin of error was plus or minus 3.46 percent.
The poll was commissioned by the First Five Years Fund, a group that advocates for expanded early education.
Some leading Democratic senators are generally supportive. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa and chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, made helping more children get access to high-quality preschools part of his proposed overhaul of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. But there’s been no Republican support for Obama’s “Preschool for All” idea.
Research shows that the early years are a critical time in brain development and that children struggle to catch up if they miss out on stimulating activities when they’re small.
Kris Perry, the executive director of the First Five Years Fund, an advocacy group that commissioned the poll, said that the 7 in 10 support was “a very high number, especially against this backdrop right now of disagreement in Washington over how to solve problems.”
A cigarette tax won’t work in all states, Perry said. Advocates are open to other ideas.
But so far a more popular alternative hasn’t been found that would meet demands in Congress that new programs don’t add to the deficit.
The Altria Group, the tobacco industry’s lobbying organization, opposes the tax on cigarettes for early education, said spokesman David Sutton. A tax increase on most tobacco products went into effect four years ago. “We think it is patently unfair to single out adult tobacco consumers with another federal tobacco tax increase to pay for a broad, new government spending program claimed to have benefits for everyone,” Sutton said.
He added that such a tax would be regressive, burdening middle- and low-income consumers, and would create financial incentives for criminal trafficking in tobacco, especially counterfeit products.
The Altria Group includes Philip Morris USA, a company that has about half of the U.S. cigarette market share.