Missouri voters could decide on higher cigarette tax

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 by 73 cents 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 now 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. 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 plan clears those hurdles, this will 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. In 2006, they rejected 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 General Assembly, partly because a significant tobacco tax increase probably would have required voter approval anyway.

Nonetheless, tobacco tax proposals also have been floated in the Missouri 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 oppose large increases to Missouri’s cigarette tax.

Ron Leone, the executive director of the Missouri Petroleum Marketers and 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. But he is endorsing a proposal to gradually raise the state cigarette tax to 33 cents after four years.