By Daniel Strawhun, Opinions Editor
The state of Missouri has the lowest cigarette tax in the nation. At 17 cents per standard pack of 20 cigarettes, cigarette smokers in Missouri pay a whole 13 cents less per pack than even their Virginian counterparts, who, rather unremarkably, pay the second lowest rate in the U.S. But that could all change Nov. 8.
There are currently two separate ballot measures that would raise cigarette taxes in Missouri if passed. The first, officially titled Constitutional Amendment 3, seeks to raise the current 17 cent tax by 60 cents, with revenue generated to be deposited into the Early Childhood Health and Education Trust Fund. The second, Proposition A, would increase the current tax by a modest 6 cents and would allocate the funds to “transportation infrastructure projects” within the state.
These ballot measures are, in themselves, not particularly surprising. What is surprising, however, is the support that each draws. Constitutional Amendment 3, the larger of the two proposed hikes, is backed by tobacco giant Reynolds American, Inc., a company that produces around 30 percent of all cigarettes consumed in the United States. Proposition A, the more moderate of the two, is backed by a number of smaller tobacco companies. Even more surprising is the opposition: the American Lung Association in Missouri, the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, and other related health organizations released a joint statement denouncing both proposals, calling them “insufficient” and arguing that “the [tobacco] industry’s support for these small increases is merely to improve their image while lining their pockets.”
But I fail to see the logic in this opposition. While neither proposal is the “meaningful tobacco tax increase… of $1.00 per pack or more” for which the joint statement calls, both are still increases, no? A small step in the right direction is better than no step at all. The potential 60 or 6 cent increases should be viewed as fractions of an ultimate, higher goal—not as simple failures.
Moreover, the inverse relationship between price and demand exists as a gradient. While it is true that demand may begin to sharply decrease around a certain price point (which the health organizations deem to be one additional dollar), there still remain smaller, less dramatic gradations of change leading up to the mark. If the goal in raising cigarette taxes is decreased consumption, then every degree of decrease should be welcomed and celebrated as both a victory and a milestone.
One must consider the fact that in opposing the tax increases, the health organizations are essentially opposing the good that the potential revenue could effect in the community. Regardless of whether or not a 6 or 60 cent increase would actually bring about instantaneous, widespread cessation of smoking, both would undoubtedly produce a substantial increase in state revenue. The funds that Prop. A could generate for statewide infrastructure development seem especially important as we attempt to retrofit St. Louis with new forms of public transportation while, at the same time, rebuilding our ancient crumbling streets and bridges.
But the effects of Constitutional Amendment 3 would be harder to gauge. Making early childhood education more accessible in our communities is, of course, a noble cause; however, the moving parts involved, namely the nine person oversight committee required in each county, but also the teachers, students, and parents involved, always have the potential to render useless any well-meant increase in funds. And anyway, funneling more money into a program does not necessarily improve the quality of said program. Whereas an increase in funds allocated to infrastructure development more readily translates into actual measurable improvements, an increase in funds allotted to educational programs generally does not.
The other problem with Constitutional Amendment 3 is that a yearly increase indexed to the inflation rate has been written into the legislation, which hardly seems fair considering the stagnant wage growth in Missouri, which has not kept pace with inflation rates in recent years.
While neither tax would very probably achieve its ostensible goal—to dramatically curb smoking amongst Missourians—both would generate tax revenue in the state and be tangible steps toward creating a healthier society. It is important to be realistic, rather than idealistic, in situations such as these.