The state of Missouri has the lowest sales tax on cigarettes in the nation, but that all could change if voters approve Amendment 3 next month.
Currently, each pack of cigarettes sold in Missouri carries with it about a 50-cent tax. According to a local grocery store, the average price of a pack of a top-shelf brand cigarettes, tax included, is now just over $6.
After a controversial vote by the Missouri Legislature to put it on the ballot, Missouri voters will decide if the tax on cigarettes will increase by 60 cents per pack over the next three years.
All monies generated by the increased tax is slated to go into the Early Childhood Health and Education Trust Fund, which will be created if the Missouri Constitution is amended at the request of the voters.
Around $300 million in annual revenue is expected from the new taxes.
To inform the public and drum up support for Amendment 3, two groups called “Yes on 3 for Kids” and “Raise Your Hand for Kids” have hit the Internet and airwaves across the state touting the benefits of the increased funding for schools.
Mike Wood, a spokesperson for both groups, says the tobacco industry is funding both the proposition and opposition to the amendment.
As of now, the large tobacco companies have bankrolled $3.5 million into these organizations to further promote the passage of the amendment.
“This boils down to big tobacco versus small tobacco,” Wood said. “The big companies are in favor of the smaller tax and the additional money going for education. The smaller companies are against it because they stand to lose about $80 million per year.”
Wood explained in addition to adding the tax, the amendment will also close a decades-old carve-out or loophole that has assured the smaller companies a certain market share since the billion dollar tobacco settlements in the early 2000s.
“The smaller tobacco companies have 80 million reasons to oppose this amendment,” Wood said. “Missouri is the only state that hasn’t closed that carve-out.”
He added there have been three other cigarette tax increases to go before the voters in years past, but all three have failed because they were too high, but the main factor was there was no real plan for where the new revenues would go.
“The voters don’t care whether this is a fight between big and small tobacco companies,” Wood said. “But, it is no secret early childhood education in Missouri is woefully underfunded. Currently the state spends $37 million per year. After the tax, it could be $300 million, In addition to that, $30 million per year will be spent on health education and smoking cessation programs. Today, the state only spends $30,000 per year on those.”
In addition to small tobacco opposing the amendment, dozens of state legislators, including five from Franklin County, have signed a petition against the amendment.
Wood explained their opposition from the amendment is two-fold.
The first is that many of the lawmakers have signed an oath that they would oppose tax increases of any kind across the board.
The second is that the language of the amendment and the formation of the education fund would essentially place the money in a lock-box and prohibit lawmakers from spending it on anything but its intended purpose that will be added to the Missouri Constitution.
Due to the proven health dangers and social stigmas that have been placed on smoking in recent years, several national health organizations have come out against the amendment.
Many of these groups have lent their names to political action committees, including “We Deserve Better”, that say the amendment is secretly backed by big tobacco and is focused on keeping smokers addicted, cuts research funding and would not deter kids from starting smoking because the increase in tax is too small.
Bradley Ketcher, the deputy treasurer for the group, says Amendment 3 is loaded with benefits for big tobacco.
“It would ban the funding of research into the harmful effects of smoking and ban public advocacy for stricter tobacco laws,” Ketcher said. “It has unacceptable long-term implications for patients and medical research. Early childhood education supporters and Missouri citizens are just pawns in the game.”
Opponents also claim the tobacco companies are manipulating the voters into believing the tax increase will be enough to stop people from smoking by using the smokescreen of additional education funding that will be generated.
Instead, they claim big tobacco purposely targets children as future consumers.