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.