JEFFERSON CITY — Smoking could get more costly as some seeking to raise Missouri's lowest-in-the-nation cigarette tax expect to submit signatures this week to put the issue before voters in November.
The proposal calls for increasing Missouri's tax on each pack of cigarettes to 90 cents, a 73 cents increase, and steering the additional money to education and smoking prevention and cessation. Taxes on other tobacco products also would be increased.
Health organizations including the American Cancer Society, the American Lung Association and the American Heart Association, are pushing the ballot measure.
Missouri currently levies a cigarette tax of 17 cents per pack, far below the national average of $1.46. Virginia has the second-lowest cigarette tax at 30 cents, and among states in the central U.S., the tax is $1.36 in Iowa, $1.15 in Arkansas, 98 cents in Illinois and 79 cents in Kansas. Five states have a tax of at least $3, and New York's tax is $4.35. The federal government also has its own $1.01 tobacco tax.
Supporters of raising Missouri's cigarette tax say they're focused on improving public health by keeping teens from starting smoking and getting adults to stop.
"Most people are looking for a reason to quit," said Misty Snodgrass of the American Cancer Society. "Tobacco and cigarettes are not an essential life benefit; it's not like rent or food. So people make those choices whenever it does become more expensive."
A trial judge in Cole County is scheduled to consider a legal challenge to the tobacco tax ballot summary on May 7, the day after groups seeking to get initiatives on this fall's ballot must submit signatures to the secretary of state's office.
If the tobacco measure clears those hurdles, this would be the third time in the past decade that a measure seeking to increase tobacco taxes has appeared on the statewide ballot. Missourians in 2002 defeated a 55-cents per-pack increase by roughly 31,000 votes and did the same in 2006, rejecting an 80-cents-per-pack increase by about 61,000 votes.
Snodgrass said this year's proposal is broader and different from the previous efforts. She said supporters opted for a ballot measure instead of attempting to go through the legislature, partly because a significant tobacco tax increase likely would have required voter approval anyway.
Nonetheless, tobacco tax proposals also have been floated in the state Capitol. Besides public health concerns, some legislative supporters have eyed the additional tax revenue to help depleted state coffers.
The House Ways and Means Committee this past week held hearings on three proposals from Democratic lawmakers that could help boost state cigarette taxes. The annual legislative session ends in three weeks, making final passage unlikely for measures that have not yet been cleared for debate by the full House.
Several of the businesses that sell cigarettes and other tobacco products opposed large increases to Missouri's cigarette tax.
Ron Leone, who is the executive director for the Missouri Petroleum Marketers & Convenience Store Association, said the combination of federal, state and local government assessments makes taxes paid on cigarettes quite high. He said focusing on just the state tax of 17 cents offers an incomplete picture, while endorsing a proposal to gradually raise the state cigarette tax to 33 cents after four years.
Opponents of greater tobacco tax increases say lower prices help Missouri stores attract customers from other states, who contribute to the economy by purchasing more than just tobacco products.
"We believe being a low-tax state is a good thing," Leone said. "We're not embarrassed by the fact that we're the lowest tobacco taxed state in the country. We don't have a problem with that. We think that's a good thing."
Rep. Mary Still, D-Columbia, who is sponsoring legislation that would raise the cigarette tax to 89 cents, said Missouri's current rate is embarrassing and contributing to various public health problems.
"If this is a race to the bottom, then we certainly win," Still said.