COLUMN: Proposed cigarette tax isn't fair to smokers

Monday, February 21, 2011 | 11:51 a.m. CST; updated 8:54 p.m. CST, Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Missouri Marlboro men and women may have to sell their horses in the near future if a new cigarette tax proposed this legislative session is passed.

Missouri lawmaker Mary Still, our state representative for the 25th District, wants to tax cigarette smokers to “make things fair” in Missouri for us nonsmokers. She introduced two versions of the user tax into the House to raise the cigarette sales tax, a bold move considering many Missourians are already suffering economically in the recession.

One version raises the tax to 12 cents a pack and doesn’t require voters' consent; the other is a $1-a-pack increase that would require voters' approval. She made a few good points in a guest commentary she wrote for the Missourian.

Missouri has the lowest cigarette tax in the nation. Even if we raise the current 17-cent tax by an additional 12 cents, we would still rank last behind Virginia.

Missouri ranks fourth in the country for percentage of adults who smoke, with nearly 25 percent of the adult population puffing up regularly, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. We are fifth in the number of new lung cancer cases and have the seventh-highest lung cancer death rate.

Clearly, smoking is a problem here in Missouri.

Rep. Still hopes the tax will help make up for the $500 billion budget shortfall this year. The 12-cent increase is projected to raise $68 million, and the $1-a-pack increase is projected to bring in $570 million.

The idea of making our state healthier while raising millions of dollars sounds like an awesome plan in theory.

I’ve come up with a few other user taxes of my own:

Let’s spike up the taxes for booze. Drinking isn’t exactly healthy for the body and, quite frankly, some people drink just a little too much. In fact, some people are addicted to drinking, and we call them alcoholics. If a cigarette tax will deter smokers from lighting up, surely a price spike will encourage alcoholics to put the bottle down, right? If an extra dollar-per-bottle tax doesn’t sound like enough to break alcoholism, why do people assume money will be the final push to kick a cigarette addiction?

Again, let me emphasize. Cigarettes are an addiction.

If we want to make a lot of money, we can tax overweight people for junk food. According to the 2010 America’s Health Rankings, Missouri ranks 42nd for thinness. With our 30.5 percent obese population paying an extra user tax for every Little Debbie and Happy Meal purchased, we could surely close the gaping budget shortfall.

If that seems like a personal attack on a specific group, consider how smokers feel. As a society, we are quick to place responsibility on those with faults. Sure, it may be easy for we nonsmokers to say this is their problem, let them pay for it. But in reality, we are all responsible.

For starters, a cigarette tax alone is not enough to help Missourians drop their habits. In addition to higher taxes, the CDC suggests offering help to people wanting to quit using tobacco.

In addition to raising taxes, the CDC suggests we protect people from tobacco smoke. Missouri does not have state laws regarding secondhand smoke, though some counties and cities, such as Columbia, have adopted their own laws.

The CDC also suggests education about the dangers of tobacco, yet in 2009, the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program, in which police officers teach elementary school children about drugs, was eliminated from Columbia Public Schools. If we don’t want to spend the time and resources we have on drug prevention and education, how can we expect to make any changes for the future?

Rep. Still said in her commentary: “The Missouri Budget Project estimates that smoking-related illness cost the state’s Medicaid system $641 million in 2009 of combined federal and state funds, of which $256 million was state general revenue.” Yet, According to the CDC, Medicaid does not cover the tobacco dependence treatment that the U.S. Public Health Service recommends in its Clinical Practice Guideline. It’s not fair to target those on Medicaid for tobacco expenditures when it is they who probably have the most trouble affording and accessing assistance to quit smoking.

If we really care about the health of our state and smokers, we need to offer support, assistance and encouragement to those trying to quit. Instead of reallocating the tax money elsewhere to make up for shortfalls in other areas, we should propose using it to help people quit.

According to a report released by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, states will use only 2 percent of tobacco tax revenue toward cessation and prevention programs, even though a study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that the more states spent on these programs, the larger the declines they achieved in adult smoking, even when other factors like increasing tobacco prices was controlled.

The only way I see either version of Rep. Still’s tax increase making an impact is if a large portion of the revenue went to funding similar programs. Then, if programs to help smokers quit were easily accessible and heavily promoted, would I agree to holding smokers personally responsible for all of the economic pitfalls tobacco-related illnesses cause the state.

Rep. Still often refers to what's "fair" in her guest commentary. But if we just target smokers and punish them for an addiction we as a society helped fuel for so many decades, that's what isn't fair.

Alison Gammon is a junior at the Missouri School of Journalism. She is pursuing a minor in women's and gender studies. She is a former Missourian reporter.

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brian shactman February 21, 2011 | 2:56 p.m.

CNBC is doing a whole hour on TOBACCO. Taxes are a significant part of the story:

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Robin Nuttall February 22, 2011 | 8:49 a.m.

Missouri has one of the lowest cigarette tax rates in the nation, and has been condemned for its failure to address the problem of smoking in the state and using cigarette taxes to fund other programs rather than smoking cessation.

If too high prices motivates even one smoker to quit, the tax increase will have been worth it. Yes, smoking is addictive. We all know that. So is drinking. Higher taxes can be part of the start of helping people to quit. It is not punishment, it's support.

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Mike Sykuta February 22, 2011 | 11:28 a.m.

You make it sound as though you believe the reason to increase the tax on cigarettes is to reduce consumption. While that argument might provide some political cover, the real fact of the matter is taxing cigarettes is relatively easy money specifically because it will NOT curb smoking significantly. That means it will raise a lot of money without significantly jeopardizing the funding source for the state, since most smokers will still smoke, and most will still end up buying their cigarettes in Missouri.

In economics jargon, taxing goods with inelastic demand (such as cigarettes, gasoline and, to an extent, alcohol) provides greater potential tax revenues than taxing things people are more willing to do without. Couple that with taxing things people perceive as "bad" in some way (even if rightly so), and you have a political winner for the State budget.

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John Owsley February 22, 2011 | 11:32 a.m.

To get to the heart of the issue requires an abstraction from emotions or "fairness." Missouri needs money. Badly. Smokers need cigarettes. Badly. Marginal increases in cigarette sales taxes will not deter the vast majority of smokers, hence it is the perfect good to tax from a revenue-generating perspective. Along those same lines, so is heating oil we all use to heat our homes. We like heat and to some extent or another, need it. You don't see the state raising taxes substantially on heating oil because it is not politically feasible. Since cigarettes are unhealthy, taxing them has the side-benefit of potentially pricing the marginal smoker out of the market, so politicians can happily cloak the tax increase in the form of "it is really helping people get rid of an unhealthy habit." The same can be said of taxing alcohol, sugary drinks, etc., although those are less desirable to tax relative to cigarettes because (1) there are FAR fewer people addicted to alcohol than addicted to cigarettes, meaning relatively more people would stop consuming alcohol in the face of higher taxes than pay the tax and not change their consumption habits, and (2) again it is relatively easy to substitute away from sugary drinks to get your sugar fix, so higher taxes would cause a lot of people to simply find another source of sugar and stop buying Cokes, which is bad for revenue generation.

Of course, the state can't raise the tax on cigarettes to say, $100 a pack, because then there would eventually emerge a vast "underground economy" of "bootleg" cigarette sales, undermining the tax and creating less revenue in the extreme. Yes, I do believe a large black market for cigarettes would develop in the face of extreme taxes instead of most seeing the majority of people quit smoking.

And yes, this tax has a disproportionate effect on poor smokers. But note that increasing the sales tax 1000% on luxury/speed boats used at the Lake of the Ozarks (for instance) is not a feasible REVENUE-GENERATING alternative to avoid hitting poor people with higher taxes. In that case, Missouri boat sales would collapse as people with means to buy the boats would simply (a) spend their money on something else, or (b) go to another state, with another lake, and put a boat there.

When you begin the analysis of this tax with the assumption that "the state needs money - badly," things begin to make a lot more sense.

(Report Comment)
Corey Parks February 22, 2011 | 11:48 a.m.

Great article. Good for you for not following the same perspective of the rest of the news papers.

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J Karl Miller February 22, 2011 | 12:22 p.m.

Allison--You are a breath of fresh air--a voice of reason emerging from the cacophonic din of the anti tobacco do gooders and meddlers whose sanctimonious claims of saving smokers from themselves by taxing the sinful consumption of the noxious weed reminds one of the misguided zealots of the Salem Witch trials.

I neither smoke nor offer sympathy to those so addicted; however, the unfairness of overtaxing the users of a legal product simply because the legislature can get away with it should be obvious to even the most oblivious among us. If additional tax revenue is needed--why not make everyone a player and levy it on flour or dairy products, something used by all?

Additionally,the popularly accepted notion that smoker's health costs strap the health care system is countered by data by "Action on Smoking and Health" and University of California, Berkeley Wellness Letter 2000. The former relates that a 30 year old smoker's life expectancy is about 30 more years while the 30 year old non smoker can look forward to living 53 years longer..

The latter, the Wellness Letter, estimates that every cigarette smoked reduces life by 11 minutes; accordingly, each carton costs a day and a half and every year of smoking cuts the life span by nearly two months. These estimates and similar tests delineate the utter fallacy of attempting to assess the health care costs per smoker without considering also the obvious savings due to their significantly shorter life span.

Finally, let's stop the politics of self delusion. If tobacco poses such damage to individual and collective health, why have we not bitten the proverbial bullet and banned its manufacture and use? That answer is a simple one--tobacco and the taxing of it by federal, state and local government is a significant cash cow. The hypocrisy of alleviating an evil through taxation is asinine.

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Ricky Gurley February 22, 2011 | 2:42 p.m.

Let's also start taxing "free range internional ignorance". Then some of the people touting this B.S. will go broke....

Afterall, "intentional ignorance", is a CHOICE!

Ricky Gurley.

(Report Comment)
Michael Schoelz February 22, 2011 | 9:59 p.m.

Firstly, D.A.R.E. sucked. Plus as a smoker, I'd be willing to pony up. I mean really, Missouri still has the best deal in the country.

Sure some anti-smoking efforts have gone to far. No cigs in bars? Really? But an extra tax when we really need the cash... yea totally worth it. I'd rather have a functioning police force (or health insurance) than however many cigs I would lose cause of this legislation.


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Allan Sharrock February 23, 2011 | 9:31 a.m.

look first it is 12cents today and when our elected official spend that money they will ask for 12 more cents. They cannot help themselves from spending our tax dollars. The crazy think is that we generally elect those who promise to spend them most.

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Ricky Gurley February 23, 2011 | 9:32 a.m.

WHY do we really need the cash, Michael Schoelze?

WHO made the decisions that put us where we are at now financially, Michael Schoelz?

You have a functioning Police Force that is costing the city good money by having the city foot the bill for it to defend itself in several federal lawsuits, with even more on the way.. Are you going to blame that on the smokers?

Ricky Gurley.

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Paul Allaire February 23, 2011 | 2:04 p.m.

In the name of being "fair" to "all smokers" I want to have a five minute "smoke break" every ten or fifteen minutes whether or not I actually smoke. I want to defile the fragrance of your favored dining establishment at will. I want to litter all over your streets and sidewalks too.

(Report Comment)
Michael Schoelz February 23, 2011 | 2:47 p.m.

@Ricky: Why do we need cash? Well, that's a matter of opinion, but I would say that I like the services that the government provides and would prefer to see them continue. Feel free to disagree, but I see great value in how my tax dollars are spent. eg.: the University of missouri

Who made the decisions that put us where we are? Literally everyone who has worked in government up till now. So does it really matter? Nah. What matters is that we work to find solutions that will work now and in the future.

For the sake of argument, sure, the police might have their own problems here specifically in Columbia. But I was really just referring to them in general, like one might refer to firefighters, school, healthcare, and other public services that we all agree need to be funded adequately.

All I'm saying is that as a smoker, who understands the budget constraints mean either increased taxes or decreased spending, I wouldn't mind a 12 cent increase on cigs if it helps out. I'll say it again: It's still the best deal in country.

@Paul, I'm sorry that some people are lazy, smell bad and litter. Smoking is just an excuse for people do all three of those things at once. It really is a nasty habit, but it's stress relieving and often keeps people from doing more destructive things. Just remember that smokers are people too, and they're not trying to maliciously ruin your evening or city.

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Jimmy Bearfield February 23, 2011 | 3:09 p.m.

"All I'm saying is that as a smoker, who understands the budget constraints mean either increased taxes or decreased spending, I wouldn't mind a 12 cent increase on cigs if it helps out."

Why wait for state to force you to put your money where your mouth is? Simply pay more than just what you owe in state taxes. I guarantee that they will deposit your check.

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Ricky Gurley February 23, 2011 | 3:14 p.m.

Mr. Schoelz,

While you may be referring to the Police in general, here are a few question for you..

How much do you think those Federal Lawsuits have cost the City of Columbia, already?

How much do you think a good Attorney charges for a retainer to defend a Federal Civil Rights Lawsuit?

No sir, Mr. Schoelz I do not accept this statement: "So does it really matter? Nah. What matters is that we work to find solutions that will work now and in the future."

YES! Holding our government accountable for the poor decisions that it makes, that affects the citizenry DOES MATTER, sir!

You don't excuse poor decisions from our government for the sake of finding a solutions, you base the solution on holding that government responsible for making those poor decisions accountable by putting the consequences of those bad decisions on government, NOT THE CITIZENS! So, that the government might not make those same poor deciions again. FIRE PEOPLE! Take away the nice things our tax dollars are paying for that those government workers use! STOP building new offices for them! Make them work in the conditions that are commensurate with the budget that they have, as a result of poor decision making that has put us where we are financially right now! And sir, Smokers are citizens too.

But for God's sake; DON'T advocate that our government can say "We'll "screw up" and you citizens can "take the hit" for it"! That is NON-SENSE!

Ricky Gurley.

(Report Comment)
Michael Schoelz February 23, 2011 | 7:09 p.m.

Clearly we have moved beyond the issue of a cigarette tax.

@ Jimmy: Yes, If I was in that situation I would feel differently about taxes in general. But I'm not sure that I would feel too differently about a cigarette tax. It's just the fact that cigs in MO are cheap, it seems like a reasonable place to try to start increasing revenue.

@Ricky: No I don't know how much police error is costing the city. I will agree that there are flaws in how the police operate. I just happen to also see that a lot of good is done by tax dollars, and I don't want those services that some desperately need go away. Therefore, I agree, when government 'screws up,' the citizens who depend on the government should 'not take the hit,' because they are citizens too. I see this as opportunity for me to be able to help others that are hurting through a small increase in taxes that I think is a negative trait of mine.

I see the poor decisions our government make come straight from the citizenry itself. We elected these officials as a community, state or nation. They(we) make the poor decisions and then we(they) have to deal with them cause government is simply an extension of the people. Blame does not affect the reality of the situation, and if we really want to place blame we have only ourselves to blame. This is a stark reality, one that seems callous and unjust on its face but is the foundation of the democracy we live in. No one is perfect, no one can say they are blameless.

On another level, I ask you this: Do you know how much tax dollars you personally use daily? Directly and indirectly. From the solace that comes from military defense to the prices of the food we eat?

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Ricky Gurley February 23, 2011 | 8:10 p.m.

No Michael, you don't get to say that we elected them, therefore THEIR decisions are OUR fault.... Their decisions are THEIR decisions..

As sure as if you would decide to go murder another human being you should be held accountable for your decision to do so, so should the people in office that made a long list of frivolous spending decisions that got us to where we are today.

Bike racks, bike paths, bike lines on the highway, new buildings that were not needed, state of the art equipment in the court house, how much do you think all of that cost? And before the bicyclists chime in with me having something against bicycling, I don't! But there are many other cities that have not invested so much into the "bicycling culture" that have a healthy "biking community". Couple this with having to defend lawsuits, and you can get a good idea why the government wants to tax somebody for the financial straits it is in. And that is just the City of Columbia, I don't suppose it is much different statewide. But they DO have some nice offices and computers, don't they? And guess what, ME and YOU get to pay the freight for it. As if we are not already paying taxes for this stuff! And now they want us to pay more of the freight for it if we smoke cigarettes.

Money is fluid, Michael. There is not an endless supply of it. To put it in one place you have to take it out of another place. And when you run out and need more, you have to earn it or steal it. Except for government, all it has to do is figure out who to tax next......

Ricky Gurley.

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