If you tax them, they will quit

May 2, 2012

You have probably heard the statistic: Missouri has the lowest cigarette tax in the nation – just 17 cents a pack, compared to the national average of $1.46. In this week's Health & Wealth update, public health advocates want to raise Missouri's tobacco tax to deter people from smoking, and to help offset the costs that tobacco incurs.

Three Democrats in the Missouri House have introduced bills this session to raise the tobacco tax. Last week, all three bills got a hearing in the House ways and means committee, where lawmakers got a chance to make their cases.

Representative Mary Still, of Columbia, wants to raise the tax to 89 cents a pack, with the revenue going to public education. She said today's tax, adjusted for inflation, is lower than it was in 1961.

"If this is a race to the bottom, we certainly win. I ask you to think of what is the price. More smokers? We rank fourth in the country in the percentage of adults who smoke. More citizens suffering from lung cancer? We rank fifth in the new lung cancer cases."

Representative Jeanette Mott Oxford, of St. Louis, wants to peg Missouri's tax to 75 percent of the national average -- about $1 a pack this year. Part of the revenue would go to paying for tobacco prevention and cessation.

"The tobacco industry is spending almost a $1 million a day in Missouri to recruit new smokers," said Oxford, citing data from the Campaign for Tax-Free Kids. "And we spend very little -- I think it's about $3 million a year on the effort against tobacco addiction." Her bill would raise about $411 million a year in revenue, and would allocate about $73 million of that to tobacco prevention and cessation programs, as per recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control.

Representative Rory Ellinger, of University City, presented a bill that would double the tax to 33 cents a pack, putting the state just ahead of Virginia, with the 50th lowest tax in the nation.

"Given the politics, and the fact that this is Missouri, which is an extremely poor state now -- we have to face that -- and we have leadership from our governor and our representatives and senators who do not believe in any taxes, given that framework and that atmosphere, I think my bill is realistic."

Tobacco industry supporters say raising the tax will hurt business.

"Cigarettes are already massively taxed," said Ron Leone, a lobbyist for an association that represents gas stations and convenience stores (the people who sell cigarettes).

"When a consumer buys a pack of cigarettes today, they do pay the 17 cents in state tax, they pay $1.01 in federal tax, and then they pay state and local sales tax."

Representative Oxford dismissed concerns that raising the tax would drive away out-of-state customers.

"If we build our economy in Missouri on recruiting people to come into our state to use a product that makes you die as miserably as my loved ones have who've been addicted to tobacco, then God help us about the consequences of being that kind of a state that thinks that's how you attract folks to our state to shop."

Testifying in favor of the tobacco tax hike were health groups including the American Lung Association, the American Heart Association, and the American Cancer Society. 

None of these bills is likely to make it out of committee and into the law books this year. Committee Chair Andrew Koenig, Republican of St. Louis County:

"We have a limited number of bills, and it's pretty late in session."

But this is not the last you'll hear of the tobacco tax. On sidewalks and in parking lots across the state, petitioners have been gathering signatures to put the issue before voters in November. Those signatures are due next week, and backers are confident they will get enough.