Is Missouri Ready to Raise Its Very Low Cigarette Tax?

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Lucas Jackson / Reuters

At the Welcome Smokers shop on Missouri Boulevard in the Missouri state capital, a pack of Marlboro reds, the world's most popular brand, costs $5.14. By contrast, a pack of the same cigarettes runs as much as $13 on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

"If this is a race to the bottom, we win," Missouri state representative Mary Still, a Democrat from Columbia, groused in a recent editorial, referring to the fact that Missouri now levies the lowest cigarette tax in the U.S.: 17 cents a pack. Missouri won this distinction this past summer when South Carolina lawmakers — shrugging off the influence of the state's tobacco growers — overrode outgoing Republican governor Mark Sanford's veto and raised its tax by half a buck per pack, from 7 cents to 57 cents. New York has the highest cigarette tax, at $4.35 a pack; the national average is $1.45 a pack, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

At a time when even Deep South tobacco states are turning on the golden leaf to jack up so-called sin taxes, many people find it baffling that Missouri — known more for its waves of soybeans and corn — remains determined to keep its cigarette taxes (and beer taxes too) at permanently low levels. Especially since the state is facing a budget shortfall of as much as $600 million next year.

Both at the polls in statewide referendums and in the legislature, efforts to boost cigarette taxes are repeatedly shot down. Still is trying again in 2011: she's drafting a bill that would hike the tax by 12 cents each year for eight years. But antitax Republicans control both legislative chambers, and Democratic governor Jay Nixon has taken a no-new-taxes pledge. A spokesman for the governor, Scott Holste, wouldn't touch the tax idea with a 10-foot pole. "We're just not gonna weigh in on that right now," he said.

"There is absolutely no appetite for it — zip, zero, none," says a GOP lawmaker who recalls the time he made the mistake of telling his Republican brethren that he had no objection to a tax hike on smokers. "They almost laughed me out of the room," he says. "They said, 'Please don't ever say that out loud again.' "

The University of Missouri, which is staring at a potential $50 million cut from the state next year, recently hosted area lawmakers to brainstorm ideas for closing the budget gap. The cigarette tax came up because it seems to be low-hanging fruit, given the high social costs of smoking. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 23.1% of adult Missourians are smokers, among the highest rates in the nation. Kentucky is highest, with 25.7% of its residents lighting up. Smoking-related illnesses cost the Medicaid system some $641 million last year, according to the Missouri Budget Project, and the CDC says smoking kills at least 9,500 Missouri residents each year. And studies have shown that increasing cigarette taxes 10% can reduce consumption as much as 5%, especially among young people.

"There were Republicans in the room" during the university conference, Still tells TIME. "Everybody agreed it was indefensible to be lowest in the nation. But they don't think we can do anything about it. Well, just raise the tax. We've talked about what's the matter with Kansas. I think we need to talk about what's the matter with Missouri."

One thing that poses a problem in reforming cigarette taxes is the state constitution. Any major tax increase must go before the voters. (Still's proposed measure would avoid that fate by phasing in the tax in small steps.) In 2006, a proposal to raise the cigarette tax to 97 cents a pack lost a hard-fought referendum, 51% to 49%. Hospitals and health advocates poured millions into the campaign for the tax; opposition came from the tobacco lobby, gas stations and convenience stores. Posters at minimarts and filling stations across the state called for voters to "Stop Tax Abuse" and vote down a "470%" tax increase.

The public-health advocates learned a lesson. Without a change in public and political will, says Dave Dillon of the Missouri Hospital Association, "we're not going to invest again."

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