By Susan Redden and Andy Ostmeyer
Raising taxes on cigarettes and other tobacco products would make the state healthier and better educated, advocates said Monday during a Joplin stop to promote the November ballot issue.
Opponents say the promise to benefit schools is a smokescreen, and that raising the tax would drive away business coming from neighboring states, leaving a combined $67 million hole in state, county and local revenues.
The proposed tax increase of 73 cents on a pack of cigarettes would raise more than $283 million annually and still leave the state’s tax rate lower than that in most other states, Misty Snodgrass, spokeswoman for the campaign, said when the Yes on Prop B Bus Tour made a stop at Joplin’s Cunningham Park. Joplin businessman Larry Warren and a teacher, Jim Hight, spoke in favor of the proposal.
The campaign is using a yellow school bus for visits to 24 communities over the next two weeks to promote the tax plan.
Missouri’s cigarette tax currently stands at 17 cents per pack, and it would go to 90 cents if voters endorse Proposition B on Nov. 6.
Snodgrass said 20 percent of the money raised is to go to programs to help smokers quit, while 50 percent would go to elementary and secondary education, and 30 percent would go to higher education.
“It will save lives and invest in education,” she said. “There are safeguards to make sure that’s where the money ends up. ... The coalition behind this initiative will be a constant presence in Jefferson City to remind the Legislature of the voters’ intent and to hold them accountable.”
Warren said that as a parent, he likes the idea of generating money for schools via the tax. And as a business owner, he said fewer workers who smoke would translate into lower health insurance costs and less time off the job.
“Education needs the additional funding,” said Hight, who teaches writing at Crowder College in Neosho and at Vatterott College in Joplin. He said the additional money for higher education would include an increase in funding for medical education.
Snodgrass said the campaign estimates that the higher tax would help more than 33,000 smokers quit, prevent 41,000 minors from starting smoking and translate to nearly $1.4 billion in health savings as a result.
She said the 73-cent-per-pack increase would put Missouri’s rate “still in the lowest one-third in the nation” in terms of tobacco taxes.
But Ron Leone, executive director of the Missouri Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association, said Missouri will lose if the tax goes to 90 cents.
“We go from having the lowest tax in the country to being at a disadvantage with four of our border states,” he said.
And with the four remaining border states, Missouri would lose a significant edge, which is part of what brings shoppers from Kansas, Oklahoma and Arkansas, he said. Missouri’s tax of 17 cents per pack compares with 79 cents in Kansas, $1.03 in Oklahoma and $1.15 in Arkansas.
Leone said that, using the proponents’ figure, an estimated 157 million fewer packs would be sold each year in the state if the tax is raised.
“Translating that into dollars and cents, it’s a $67 million decrease in state and local sales and cigarette taxes,” he said. “All Missouri taxpayers will be filling that $67 million hole.”
Joplin charges a tax of 4 cents per 20-cigarette pack, which generates about $285,000 annually for the general fund, according to city officials.
Leone also doesn’t believe the money would be a boost for education. He said legislators could use the new tobacco money for education, but take existing education dollars away for other projects.
“What goes in the front door might just go out the back door,” he said. “There is no way they can guarantee this is education money.”
The proposal, placed on the ballot after initiative petitions were submitted to the state, is supported by the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association, the American Lung Association, the Missouri School Boards’ Association, and dozens of other groups involved in health, education and other areas.
Customers on Monday at Cigs-N-Suds, 1505 S. Madison St. in Webb City, said they don’t think that higher taxes will mean fewer smokers.
“I know they’re trying to raise it to keep people from smoking; it’s not going to happen even in today’s economy,” said Shawn Greer, of Houston. “People who smoke aren’t going to quit just because the prices get high.”
“It won’t deter it,” said Kyle Highs, of Webb City. “The government already gets enough of our tax dollars. They don’t need more. I think it’s a liberal mentality to always expect more rather than to run a balanced budget with what you already have.”
Tony Perry, manager of Cigs-N-Suds, doesn’t believe the tax would stop smokers, either.
“I’ve been doing this for 12 to 13 years,” he said. “I’ve seen price increases before. Everyone complains and moans about it. Then they’re right back to doing it as they were before. They find a way to pay for it.
“If you think they’re raising these taxes because they want us to quit, I don’t buy that. They’re raising it because they want the money.”
Patty Arrowood, owner of Feerick’s, a tobacco and liquor business with two locations in Joplin, said Missouri merchants sell a high volume of tobacco products because of the low taxes relative to those of neighboring states. She said people buy more than cigarettes when they come to Missouri; they also buy groceries, gas and other products.
“It is such an unfair tax. ... When all else fails, let’s just tax these people (smokers),” she said. “It’s just a way to increase taxes and make it sound good.
“When something is wrong, it’s wrong. I wouldn’t vote for a new tax increase on anything. Not a dime. Government spending has gotten out of hand with no checks and balances.”
PREVIOUS EFFORTS to raise Missouri’s cigarette tax — by 55 cents a pack in 2002 and by 80 cents a pack in 2006 — failed by narrow margins.