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11-2-16

UP IN SMOKE
Two cigarette tax hikes on Nov. 8 ballot

by Valerie Verkamp
Landmark editor

There are two separate cigarette tax initiatives on the November ballot.

Largely, cigarette taxes have been imposed as a deterrent for smoking. New York, Minnesota, Washington and Rhode Island have levied a state tax above $3 per pack to discourage smoking, especially among children.

At 17 cents a pack, Missouri has the lowest tobacco tax in the nation. The national average tobacco tax is $1.65.

Some claim the extraordinarily low cigarette tax in Missouri could explain why the adult smoking rate is 22.1%, the 9th highest in the nation. The smoking rate among minors is 14.9%, also higher than the national average.

Even though about 10,000 Missourians die each year from tobacco-related diseases, and the amount spent annually in Missouri to treat smoking related illness exceeds $2 billion, both measures are strongly opposed by major educator and healthcare groups.

One measure calls for a 747% tax increase, but some argue the tobacco tax is still too low to reduce smoking. Some public educators dismiss the measure because an unelected commission could give funds to private and religious schools. Despite these objections, some argue the additional tax would serve as a deterrent, just as effective as advertising restrictions, laws against sales to minors and mandatory warnings on tobacco products.

Nationally, 480,000 people die each year due to smoking. Exposure to secondhand smoke alone threatens the health of thousands, causing 41,000 deaths each year. In Missouri, secondhand smoke causes about 1,150 deaths, according to the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services.

Constitutional Amendment No. 3 would increase the tobacco tax to 60 cents over four years to 77 cents per pack, raising an estimated $263 million to $374 million a year for early childhood health and education.

“This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to make an historic level of funding for the birth through five population,” Linda Rallo, co-founder of Raise Your Hands for Kids, said about Amendment 3. “Three hundred million dollars will be used exclusively for early childhood education, early childhood health and smoking cessation for pregnant women. Missouri has never seen an initiative that dedicates all the money to children.”

Funding for early childhood programs, especially the Missouri-based program, Parents as Teachers, has been shrinking to what many consider an unsustainable level. Some argue tobacco tax is the last untapped revenue source for early childhood health and education.

“Parents as Teachers started in Missouri,” said Rallo. “We know it works. It is such a great program that it has been expanded to all 50 states and six countries. Yet, Missouri, the state where it originated, has cut its funding in half.”

“Parents as Teachers should be offered to every child but funding does not allow it. With Amendment 3 we will be able to fulfill the promise that we made to families, who want to access these early education programs.”

Constitutional Amendment 3 also levies a 67-cent fee on cigarette manufacturers.

“There is a loophole that has allowed a couple of tobacco companies to profit for years and years from tobacco taxpayers and this language will end that,” said Rallo. “Constitutional Amendment No. 3 will be a new opportunity to move Missouri forward.”

Rallo said the funds generated by the tax would be deposited into an Early Childhood Health and Education Trust Fund and would be divided up equally among communities.

“Voters in Platte County will get their fair share of funds, because the language of Amendment 3 requires there to be a fair and equal distribution of the funds based upon the residency population. This will absolutely guarantee that local communities will get their fair share.”

Amendment 3, unlike Prop A, guarantees the money goes into a constitutionally protected “locked box” that politicians cannot touch, which prevents funds from being diverted for other purposes, said Rallo.

But some education associations oppose the amendment, including the Missouri Retired Teachers Association, the Missouri Association of Rural Education and the Missouri National Education Association (MNEA). They argue it grants a 13-member unelected commission the authority to distribute funds to private and religious schools.

“The stakes for children are simply too high to overlook the constitutional amendment's shortcomings,” said Charles Smith, president of the MNEA. “The amendment permits public tax dollars to fund programs at elite private or religious schools. It lacks strong oversight and it places all decisions in the hands of an unelected commission a majority of whom do not have a background in education.”

The American Cancer Society, American Heart Association, American Lung Association and the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids have also spoken out in opposition to Amendment 3. They contend the measure is bankrolled by Reynolds American Inc, a tobacco company, funding multi-million dollar campaigns to defeat increased cigarette tax measures in three other states.

“The tobacco companies don't care one bit about funding tobacco prevention efforts,” said Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-free Kids. “What they do care about is defeating tobacco tax increases or limiting them to such small amounts that they won't reduce smoking, can be easily countered with the company's price discounts and don't hurt the companies' bottom line. That's why Reynolds is spending nearly $3 million to support the Missouri initiative – it increases the cigarette tax by just 15 cents a year for four years and heads off the possibility of a larger increase that actually reduces smoking. Missouri would still have one of the lowest cigarette taxes in the country.”

“By fighting the California, Colorado and North Dakota initiatives – while bankrolling the counterproductive Missouri measure – the tobacco companies once again are protecting their profits at the expense of kids and lives. Voters across the country should reject the industry's lies and support genuine efforts to protect children from tobacco addiction and save lives.”

Over the past 23 years, the tobacco tax in Missouri has not been increased. Four ballot measures, one as recent as 2012, have failed to increase the state's cigarette tax.

“One of the big takeaways from those attempts was discovering that voters want to see where the money is going to go and for a purpose they can understand. Constitutional Amendment 3 clearly shows that all the money will go to support the birth through five population.”

Experts say 95 percent of a child's brain develops in the first five years of life. Early childhood programs that stimulate young minds with daily experiences, parent and caregiver responsiveness, nutrition and physical activity give kids a healthy start.

With the importance of high quality early childhood education in mind, dozens of others have voiced their support for Amendment 3.

“We see how the lack of an early, high-quality support system can impact our youngest Missourians,” said Pat Holterman-Hommes, President and CEO of Youth In Need. “All of our children deserve a future, which is why our organization serves homeless and runaway teens, and why we find Amendment 3 so promising.

Making significant investments in the earliest years leads to healthy kids and strong communities.”

Proposition A
Separate and distinct from Amendment 3, Proposition A, would increase the cigarette tax by 23 cents in the year 2021. The estimated $95 million to $103 million it would generate each year would fund transportation infrastructure projects.

“The reason we proposed Prop A and spent considerable resources, time and energy getting it on the ballot is because we are sick and tired, as an industry, of trying to fend off outrageous and unfair tax increases like we are doing again this year’s with respect to Amendment 3,” said Ron Leone, of the Missouri Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association. “So we decided to take control of our own fate, and actually propose our own tax increase that we view as being fair and reasonable but still substantial.”

Leone admits that most of their efforts have been focused on defeating Amendment 3 rather than ensuring the passing of Prop A.

Unlike Amendment 3, Leone said Prop A will increase taxes on cigarettes and other tobacco products equally. He said the money generated by the tax would be deposited into a fund that legislatures would control.

But the statute could be repealed if another cigarette or tobacco tax increase measure would simply appear on any local or statewide ballot. Leone said the “rollback provision” would allow the Prop A tax increase to return to zero, if someone places another tax increase measure on the ballot.

“We felt it was a legitimate exercise and a legitimate purpose to put in our proposition that we would have some sort of insurance policy, because to be quite honest we were concerned about passing our own tax increase and two years later you have a special interest de jure coming out of the woodwork trying to pass another tax increase for their particular pet project. We didn't want to get popped twice so close together,” said Leone.

Rallo claims Prop A is nothing more than a hoax.

“Prop A was designed as a trick to keep Amendment 3 from passing,” said Rallo. “It is a poison pill. If Prop A passes, then any future tobacco tax ballot initiative in the state, even if the initiative doesn't pass, would invalidate parts of Prop A. It isn't any kind of funding that the Department of Transportation could even count on,” said Rallo.

“We think Missouri needs a long-term transportation solution, but Prop A is not that.”

Leone denies Rallo's claim that Prop A was put on the ballot merely to prevent the passing of Amendment 3, stating proponents of Prop A were in the field gathering signatures weeks before supporters of Amendment No. 3 were out in the field.

When The Landmark pointed out even at 40 cents a pack Missouri would still have one of the lowest cigarette tax rates in the nation, Leone indicated he sees it as a competitive advantage rather than a government deterrent to prevent smoking.

“I don't care what the national average is,” said Leone. “I don't care what it costs to buy a pack of cigarettes in New York, Washington, Texas or Florida. The only thing I care about is how do Missouri businesses compete with our eight border states and my goal was to do a fair and reasonable, but still substantial tax increase, while maintaining the competitive tax advantage we have over our eight border states.”

Come Election Day, there is also the potential of both measures passing.

If both ballot measures pass, the courts may have to intervene. Missouri law states that if voters approve two or more conflicting statutes or two or more constitutional amendments, then the one with the greatest number of votes triumphs over the other. But in this case, a conflict is not as evident, since one is a constitutional amendment and the other is a statute.

“From our analysis, if they both pass, they would both go into effect, because they are not conflicting measures,” said Rallo.