Raising the cigarette tax by 61 cents per pack would help persuade tens of thousands of Connecticut smokers to quit and generate as much as $130 million a year in tax revenue, advocates of the tax said Tuesday. But opponents said the higher tax would penalize the poor and racial minorities who tend to smoke more than other groups.

Those were some of the arguments presented to the tax-writing Finance Committee as it endorsed the cigarette tax increase — the first significant rise in taxes in the state in seven years. The 30-12 vote sends the bill to the state Senate, where a vote is expected Feb. 27.

If approved by the House and Senate and signed by Gov. John G. Rowland, it would take effect April 3.

Citing national studies, supporters at a public hearing said the bill could cut the numbers of smokers in the state by about 35,000 — including nearly 16,000 teen smokers — and save as many as 5,000 lives. The figures are based on an estimated 600,000 smokers in the state.

In a budget-balancing move, Rowland has proposed raising the current 50-cent per pack cigarette tax to $1.11 a pack. The proposal would make Connecticut’s cigarette tax the third-highest in the country, after New York and Washington states. New York’s cigarette tax is now $1.11, but is scheduled to rise to $1.50 per pack — the highest in the nation — on April 1.

Most speakers at the hearing suggested that additional revenue from the higher tax be used to pay for anti-smoking programs. Rowland said the money should be used to help close a budget gap estimated at $650 million for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

–Associated Press