As far as Missouri voters are concerned, the most important lawmaking body in 2012 just might be the American Cancer Society.
The nonprofit organization dedicated to improving health and eradicating smoking is aiming to do next year what Missouri's elected lawmakers have been unwilling to do: find money for education, improve health care and increase state revenue.
The solution, of course, is the simplest one available, and one we've advocated time and time again. It's time for Missouri to raise its lowest-in-the-nation tobacco tax.
That's what a coalition led by the cancer society intends to do. On Tuesday, the group filed paperwork with the secretary of state's office seeking approval for a ballot initiative that would do two things: raise the state's anemic 17-cents-per-pack cigarette tax by 80 cents and remove a loophole in Missouri law that has made the Show-Me State the nation's dumping ground for cheap cigarettes.
It is this second provision that holds the key to why the third time might be the charm for supporters of a tobacco tax hike. Their efforts fell just short in 2002 and 2006.
The big tobacco companies have been trying in vain to change the loophole in the Missouri Legislature for about as long as health care groups have been seeking a tobacco tax hike.
The loophole allows off-brand cigarettes to be sold cheaper in Missouri because, unlike the big companies, they aren't required to help fund the 1998 master legal settlement with most states over misleading tobacco product marketing.
Missouri is the only state that is a party to that agreement that still has the loophole.
It's no wonder, then, that the state has become a home for companies like "Dirt Cheap" that sell the off-brand cigarettes cheaply and with predictable results.
Missouri's lowest cigarette tax and lowest cigarette prices have led to some of the worst health outcomes, including high cancer rates and low birth weights. Even non-smokers pay the costs.
Every Missouri household, with a smoker or not, pays about $565 a year in additional state and federal tax burden, mostly for Medicaid costs because of increased health care costs related to smoking, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
Here's what we know a tobacco tax increase would do, based on evidence from other states: It would decrease smoking. It would increase revenue. And it would improve the state's overall health.
Even with an 80-cent hike, Missouri's tobacco tax still would be far below the national average of $1.46. It would be lower than four neighboring states and higher than four others.
Missouri still would be a low-tax state, but it would be on the road to better health outcomes and more consistent funding for education.
What's not to like, especially when the benefits will be felt most significantly by the poor, and 80 percent of the nearly $300 million in anticipated new revenue would be dedicated to public education in the state?
It's a shame that lawmakers are unwilling to attack this issue even though both Democrats and Republicans, including Senate Budget Chairman Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, have found reasons to support a tobacco tax increase.
It is time for voters to take the matter into their own hands.