The tax on a pack of cigarettes in Missouri is the lowest in the nation, but that may change if a ballot initiative is approved by voters in November.
The initiative, titled Proposition B, seeks to raise the tax on cigarettes sold in Missouri from its current level of 17 cents per pack to 90 cents. It also seeks a new tax for roll-your-own tobacco to be set at 25 percent of the manufacturer's invoice price and a rate of 15 percent for cigars and other tobacco products.
Supporters of the measure cite Missouri as having the 11th-highest smoking rate in the country coupled with the lowest tax burden on cigarettes. To them, it's time for the state to get back some of the revenue that has been lost due to smokers' health care needs over the years.
"The annual health care costs in Missouri that are the direct result of smoking comes to nearly $2.13 billion," said Misty Snodgrass, spokeswoman for the Jefferson City-based Show-Me A Brighter Future campaign and a director of the American Cancer Society Action Network. "And when it comes to annual Medicaid costs, funded by the taxpayers, the number is about $532 million. We're all paying a tax because of smoking."
Snodgrass is confident that the proposition will be approved by voters even though previous attempts to increase Missouri's cigarette tax failed in 2002 and 2006 by narrow margins.
"When the similar propositions were put toward voters," Snodgrass said, "they included language that would have put the revenue toward Medicare. But Proposition B will appeal more to voters because the extra tax revenue will go to education."
According to the state budget office, an average of $92 million has been collected annually in Missouri over the last five years with the tax set at 17 cents per pack. The new tax is expected to generate between $280 million to $435 million annually with most of the revenue designated for education. Fifty percent of the money would go to public schools, 30 percent to higher education and 20 percent to smoking prevention and cessation programs.
Snodgrass said that the whole initiative is quite simple.
"We want to save lives and keep people from smoking," she said. "And in this day and age where budgets are being slashed and tax revenue is lower than expected, smokers need to start pulling their weight."
Kathy Swan, member of Missouri's Coordinating Board for Higher Education and a Republican who will represent Cape Girardeau in the Missouri House next year, agreed with Snodgrass' assessment.
"In challenging economic times and with the cuts in higher education, we welcome efforts to increase funding," Swan said. "The measure could mean an additional $84 million for higher education alone, and that doesn't mean only four-year colleges. It will also include community colleges and vo-tech schools, and a new source of revenue means all entities will prosper."
A public-opinion poll issued by Public Policy Polling in late August shows Proposition B leading among voters at 47 percent to 38 percent opposed, with 14 percent undecided. The measure also seems to be a political hot potato between the candidates for governor with incumbent Democrat Jay Nixon and his challenger Republican David Spence both opposing the measure. Local legislator Wayne Wallingford, a Republican who currently represents Cape Girardeau in the state House and will represent the area in the redrawn 27th Senate District next session, is also opposed to Proposition B.
"Typically, low taxes are good," Wallingford said. "Higher taxes aren't anything to brag about. I don't smoke, and I fully understand that this measure is aimed toward those who choose to do so. But I'm not for increasing taxes at this time. I don't feel that we should try to balance our educational budget on the backs of smokers, who make up only one segment of our society."
Wallingford added that to him, the measure looks like a double-edged sword and should be broadened.
"We need to remember that if the price of a pack of cigarettes goes up, and as a result people stop buying them or quit the habit altogether, then the money that is projected to be there annually will, in fact, decrease. What will we do when that happens? That's why the entire tax base should be contributing to this and not just smokers."
Even with the hot-button issues of tobacco and taxes coming before voters, some are noncommittal at this stage. Dr. Mike Cowan, principal of Cape Girardeau Central High School, said he has a "wait-and-see" attitude toward the proposition and has heard promises made about education funding before.
"I'm somewhat skeptical," Cowan said. "Moneys to education have already been lacking from the lottery and casinos, so at this point I'm curious about how much money this tax will eventually generate. Tobacco is a major issue and we do have a low tax, and as an educator I am certainly opposed to kids taking up smoking. But I'll wait until the legislature gives us a dollar-amount on what will be coming our way before I decide if the measure is a good or bad thing. I'll have to see it to believe it."