COLUMBIA -- A month before voters will again cast ballots on proposed increase of the state’s cigarette tax, both sides brought their arguments Thursday to young voters who they think would be directly affected by it.
The current state tax on cigarettes is 17 cents per pack, the lowest in the nation. Proposition B on the November ballot would raise that tax to about 90 cents per pack. The increased revenue would be split between K-12 education, higher education and smoking cessation efforts.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, about 1 in every 4 Missourians is a smoker.
In a night forum hosted by the University of Missouri’s student government, state Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, said such an increase is justified because tobacco-related costs weigh so heavily on the state’s budget. Ron Leone, the head of the state’s convenience store lobby, said it hurt the state’s economy by pushing away some of his members’ customers.
Kelly, who has long supported increasing the cigarette tax, said the increased tax would both provide more revenue for cash-strapped education budget. He also said it would discourage people--especially teenagers and young adults from starting to smoke, which could save the state money on health care spending in the long term.
“If you care about the value of your degree at this institution, B is the only game in town,” Kelly told students.
He pointed out that the increase would bring Missouri’s rate closer to the national average, about $1.49 per pack. And he said the tax increase is a large one, but he said the costs of smoking-related illnesses are also large.
“I wouldn’t tax it like any other good,” Kelly said. “I’d tax it like any other poison.”
Leone, meanwhile, said that Missouri’s low tax rate gives its retailers a competitive advantage compared to eight bordering states. If the proposed increase were approved, he said, Missouri’s tax would be higher than four of those states—Tennessee, Kentucky, Kansas and Nebraska.
"They leave their money here and they go home,” he said. “Why would we want to do anything to discourage that?"
If generating state revenue is the concern, Leone said, he and his members would support an increase in the state’s sales tax or even an increase in the cigarette tax--as long as it still leaves Missouri lower than surrounding states.
And Leone framed Proposition B as an example of government overreach, arguing to students that if the government were empowered to impose a heavier tax on cigarettes in November, it might one day increase taxes on things more students buy, such as beer or vehicles.
Increasing the cigarette tax has been on Missouri ballots twice in the last decade, in 2002 and 2006. Both measures were defeated, in part because of well-funded opposition campaigns backed by big-brand tobacco companies.
But this year’s campaign has different dynamics. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported (http://goo.gl/Dkdg9) last month that the larger tobacco companies are staying out of this year’s fight because part of the ballot measure also changes how much tax revenue the state takes in from the sales of cheaper cigarettes.
Tobacco companies pay the state to help offset the costs of tobacco-related illnesses. But under current law, smaller tobacco companies get their money back at the end of year. Proposition B would do away with that provision. The result, Leone says, is that the actual price increase for cheaper cigarette brands will be far more than the 73 cents per pack that proponents are touting.
Leone conceded that the change and the absence of big tobacco brands leaves the proponents of this year’s measure much more funded that the opposition, which is led by his group, the Missouri Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association.
Leone said his group has taken out some billboards across the state, but has also said the convenience stores are doing in-store campaigns to impress upon smokers the impact the tax will have on them.
And Leone said he’s been traveling around the state himself talking to people about the potential impact of Proposition B at forums like the one in Columbia on Thursday.
Heading out of the auditorium after the hour-long discussion, MU senior Joseph Sash said he found Leone’s arguments against the tax convincing. Sash, who is majoring in economics, he would probably vote against it.
But freshman Andrew O’Haro said he supported the tax increase because the tax would impact a minority of the state’s residents who are smokers.
"I think that the tax will be most beneficial for the state of Missouri regardless of the downfalls that were proposed by the opposing side,” said O’Haro, who is majoring in international business.