Raise the Missouri cigarette tax
The Kansas City Star
Missouri voters likely will have the chance to remove the state from the nation’s ash tray this November.
The opportunity must not be squandered.
The state’s tax on cigarettes is 17 cents a pack. No other state allows smokers to purchase tobacco products so cheaply. The national average tax is $1.49 a pack.
Over the last 10 years, all but three states have increased cigarette taxes. Some have raised them multiple times.
But not Missouri.
Its elected leaders will not even have that conversation. They would rather cut money from schools and universities and what remains of the safety net than charge more for a habit that is estimated to cost every Missouri household $586 a year for medical expenses incurred by state and federal taxpayers.
Fortunately, Missourians outside of state government have decided to act. Supporters of a tax increase have gathered enough signatures from registered voters to gain approval for a ballot initiative calling for a 73-cent increase in the cost of a pack of cigarettes, bringing the tax to 90 cents.
Proposition B, the measure to appear on the Nov. 6 ballot, would do wonders for the health of Missouri’s population, its budget and its schools.
The state auditor has estimated that Missouri would realize $283 million to $423 million in new annual revenues. Some would be used to discourage people from starting to smoke, and to help smokers to quit. The remainder would go to elementary and secondary schools as well as colleges and universities.
Studies have established that some people, especially teenagers, smoke less when cigarette prices go up. Over the long term, as more people quit or never take up the habit, savings on medical care should accelerate.
As skeptics and opponents point out, tobacco tax increases also were put on Missouri’s ballot in 2002 and 2006. Both failed by a hair, gaining 49 percent of the vote.
The 2012 effort is different, for several reasons.
Backers of the tax increase, which includes a broad coalition of groups invested in Missouri’s health and future, listened to the concerns of people around the state. They wanted any additional tax money earmarked for schools and universities.
Also, Missouri has been shameful in its use of money received in a legal settlement among the states and big tobacco companies. While other states use at least part of the revenue to prevent smoking and help people to quit, Missouri sends virtually all of the money to its general fund.
Approval of Proposition B would guarantee revenues for those badly needed public health efforts.
Past efforts to raise the cigarette tax have met with furious resistance from major tobacco companies. However, Proposition B closes a loophole in Missouri law that gives a huge competitive advantage to smaller, off-brand cigarette companies.
So far, “Big Tobacco” hasn’t donated money to fight the tax increase, leading to hopes that the large manufacturers might abhor the loophole more than they would a higher tax on their products.
Convenience stores and off-brand manufacturers will still roll out the tired arguments about the unfairness of a tax increase on a toxic product.
Those arguments, and a healthy dose of distortion, prevailed in the past. But in those elections, Missouri’s tax didn’t have the distinction of being dead last among the 50 states and Washington, D.C.
Being the nation’s most tobacco-friendly state isn’t a point of pride. Missouri has too many needs to allow its cigarette tax to remain at rock bottom. Its leaders won’t act, so citizens must.