Missouri's low tobacco tax sparks debate over revenue
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Missouri's low tobacco tax sparks debate over revenue

Date: April 25, 2012
By: Joe Chiodo
State Capitol Bureau

If a petition to increase tobacco tax receives enough signatures by May 6, voters will have the chance to decide whether smokers' habit will become more costly. While some say the increase is long overdue, opponents say increasing taxes in such a weak economy is not smart.
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Wrap: It may be a shocking statistic to some...at seventeen cents a pack, Missouri currently has the lowest tobacco tax in the country.

But a petition headed by Missouri chapters of The American Cancer Society and American Lung Association is aimed at ridding the state of that reputation.

If the petition gets enough signatures by the first week of May, tobacco users would face the possibility of a close to one dollar increase when purchasing their cigarettes.

So what exactly would increasing the tobacco tax do?  The answer varies depending on who you ask.

Spokesperson for the American Lung Association, Michelle Bernth, says it is the perfect time for the increase.

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Description: "A tobacco tax increase really is a win-win. An opportunity for the state to increase revenue and a health win to decrease smoking rates.

While a local smoker and tobacco outlet employee, Benjamin Johnson,  feels targeted. 

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Description: "Any avid smoker unfortunately I mean they're not going to be for the tobacco taxing, I can tell you that right now. But its not like we're the largest force, and I know there's a lot of negative taboos associated with it which is the sad thing."

Missouri's low tobacco tax helps make sense of other statistics.

According to a study by the Center for Disease Control Study Missouri ranks fourth in the country for the number of adult smokers and fifth in new lung cancer cases.

Bernth says this is why she has been working on the petition to increase tobacco tax by seventy three cents.

She says the pain she felt after losing a loved one inspired her to get started.

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Description: "I lost my grandmother to C.O.P.D. through her life-long smoking addiction so I watched her struggle with that and pass away from a extremely difficult and painful disease...so I feel passionate about our cause."

She is confident the petition will receive the more than one-hundred-thousand required signatures by May sixth--letting the increase become the decision of voters in November.

According to Bernth, the increase could boost Missouri's annual revenue by up to $423 million.

The money would be distributed between higher education, elementary and high school public school, and tobacco prevention and cessation programs.

Johnson, who works at grassroots smokeshop, says he is worried the distribution of money into education will appeal to voters.

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Description: "Who doesn't want to help contribute to what we consider our future...noones going to argue that. But I mean that's the problem, I mean you're just kind of throwing down a trump card. Just why the hell does it have to get slammed on to cigarette tax?"

Johnson's logic may be right, because Bernth's story and petition are drawing in others to join the cause.

Democratic legislators say hiking up the cigarette tax could pull Missouri out of its budget shortfall and failing economy.

Multiple calls to Democratic Attorney General Senator Chris Koster went unreturned, but he recently stated his support for an increase in the Kansas City Star.

He says he believes Missouri will not remain in 50th place for much longer.

One of the largest supporters is Democratic U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill.

At a press conference held earlier this month, she told listerners the low tax is embarrassing for the state.

Opponents, however, think otherwise.

Johnson says the increase would only open the door for more taxing, and eventually hurt his smokeshop.

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Description: "If you start increasing taxes I mean that's just kind of letting one person by the gate if you know what I mean, and as soon as one gets by, more get by."

Republican Senate President Pro Tem  Rob Mayer agrees with the logic, and has made it clear he is against taxing.

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Description: "I made a pledge in the first week of session that I would not support tax increases for this fiscal year, I made the same pledge last year, and its been a position that our republican caucus has been firmly behind."

Mayer also gave insight to Governor Nixon's position on the issue, which goes against that of his fellow Democrats.

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Description: "The Governor also agrees with us he publicly has made statements that he would not be supportive of tax increases."

The Governor's spokesman, Scott Holste, confirmed Nixon's no-tax-pledge does include tobacco.

In both 2002 and 2006 Missouri Voters rejected ballot measures to raise cigarette taxes.

With a history of failure and a costly future, the possibility of an increased tobacco tax in Missouri is hard to predict.

But until the measure hits the ballot, smokers can continue to enjoy the low tax, while people such as Bernth will continue their fight to save lives.

Reporting from the state Capitol, I'm Joe Chiodo