A serious effort is under way to raise Missouri’s lowest-in-the-nation cigarette tax — a move that would vastly improve the health of both citizens and the state’s finances.
Gov. Jay Nixon and legislative leaders should be leading this charge. Not only does Missouri’s ridiculous 17-cents-a-pack tax deprive the state of badly needed revenues, researchers have estimated that smoking costs the state’s Medicaid system more than $600 million a year.
But the Democratic governor and Republican legislative leaders have not mustered the courage to place the health of Missouri citizens above their reluctance to support a tax boost. And so a citizens’ coalition has mounted a statewide initiative petition campaign.
The coalition, led by the American Cancer Society, this week replaced a petition filed earlier with the Missouri Secretary of State’s office with a slightly modified version. It asks voters to increase the tax on a pack of cigarettes to 90 cents. That is still far below the national average of $1.43 a pack.
The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids in Washington estimates that a 73-cent increase on a pack of cigarettes would bring in $283 million a year for cash-strapped Missouri.
The ballot initiative proposes creating a “health and education trust fund,” to hold revenues from the 73-cent increase. It calls for 20 percent of the net proceeds to be used for smoking prevention and cessation efforts, 50 percent to be used for elementary and secondary education and 30 percent to benefit public colleges and universities, with a fourth of that amount earmarked for the education of health care providers.
Designating the money makes sense. Although the state has one of the nation’s highest smoking rates, Missouri leaders have reneged on previous promises to spend money on preventing tobacco use and helping people quit. And the trust fund would provide another source of reliable revenue to public schools and universities.
Attempts to raise Missouri’s cigarette tax through a statewide vote failed narrowly in 2002 and 2006, after vehement resistance from tobacco lobbyists. But Missouri’s new, ignominious distinction as the nation’s cheapest place in which to purchase cigarettes ought to persuade voters this time.