Coming to a shopping center or mall near you, the current controversial flavor of the week and another petition to sign: The Initiative Petition Relating to Tobacco Taxes.
Normally, I would be rooting for this ballot initiative to be presented to the public in November and reduce the number of smokers in the state. Even the tobacco-producing states have higher taxes than Missouri, so this may be a good thing, right? Yet, as the late Billy Mays would say, “Wait, there’s more!”
The front man of this effort is Marc Ellinger of the Jefferson City law firm Blitz, Bardgett & Deutsch, representing a group that calls itself “Healthy Missouri.” As of this writing, Ellinger has not returned my telephone call. Ellinger did have an interview with Bob Priddy of MissouriNet.
The true originators of this bill remain unknown because Ellinger refused to elaborate as to who the backers are. They are not, as Ellinger wants us to believe, a “grassroots effort” or a loosely knit organization of wheezing cigarette smokers. Regardless of what Ellinger said, there is no doubt in my mind that “they” are the infamous "big four" tobacco product manufacturing companies in the U.S.
This initiative proposes an increase in sales taxes of $1 on each package of 20 cigarettes produced by “certain” tobacco companies. I am a great fan of increasing the sales tax on cigarettes, but the term here that is quite disturbing is “certain.” It appears, based on Priddy’s interview, that the proposed initiative would leave out the big four tobacco manufacturers: Brown and Williamson, Lorillard, Phillip Morris and R.J. Reynolds. Why?
On the surface, this proposal closes the retail price inequity between the big four and the generic manufacturers. To close this gap of approximately $1 per pack of 20, a tax specifically focused on the generics would bring the retail price to par with the big guys. The petition claims this would increase the coffers between $20 and $100 million, with the money going to “tobacco education and cessation programs,” not the general fund.
To put this in some perspective, imagine if an unknown entity hires an attorney to write and submit a ballot petition that says there needs to be a $50 tax on generic medication so that the price would be on par with the brand names.
This tobacco proposal needs to be countered with one that would increase on all cigarette sales. Maybe not to New York's $4.35, but perhaps somewhere in the middle, and off the bottom of the pile at $0.17.
Then, take one-third of the revenue and put it in the Master Settlement fund with no refunds to any tobacco producer. Another third should go to the Missouri K-12 public education system and higher education to support schools, universities and colleges. The final third needs to go to the various Missouri public health programs, including Medicaid.
This would also reduce the number of new youth smokers by putting the product out of financial reach for some. That increase would also lead others to smoking cessation programs that could be paid by the state with the extra revenue generated.
This is not a “win-win” proposition, but it is the best compromise.
Should you sign the petition? Yes, and then you should vote down the proposal for being inadequate, harmful to small business and not protecting the citizens of Missouri.