Up in smoke: bill raises tax on tobacco

Photo by Muhammad Al-Rawi.

Photo by Muhammad Al-Rawi.

Maria Kalaitzandonakes

Photo by Muhammad Al-Rawi.

For the fourth time junior Nic Coyne is trying to quit smoking. His hair is thin in places where he pulled it out, and his knuckles make a careful map, recording when his need for a cigarette was too much.

“I’m not going to lie. I like smoking; I like the taste of it; I like how it calms you down, but I know I need to quit,” said Coyne, who first began smoking at age 10, stealing cigarettes from others’ packs, trying to collect as many as he could find.

“I mean I can’t even get up off a chair and walk 20 feet without having to stop and breathe,” Coyne said. “So it’s time to quit.”

The gums and patches, which help most smokers quit, made Coyne physically ill, so he chews tobacco to wean himself off cigarette usage. Even when he dips, though, he gnaws on a straw or pencil to keep his mind off cigarettes.

Part of the motivation of a new bill, HB1478, proposed by Rep. Mary Still, is to decrease tobacco use, especially among youths. Most of his incentive Coyne said comes from the toll the habit takes on his body and from its expense. Coyne spends about $45 per week on cigarettes, a crippling cost for a kid’s budget, and HB1478 looks to increase that cost.

“Research has shown that if you raise the cigarette tax, that less young people will begin smoking,” Still said. “Two reasons: it’s a health issue, and it’s a resource issue.”

This bill would raise the tax on cigarettes and other tobacco products in Missouri from 17 cents to 89 cents per pack. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Missouri has the lowest tax rate on tobacco products in the United States. This potential tax increase would make Missouri the 17th lowest in the country.

According to the bill, the money produced by the tax will be earmarked to be used in public education, but other such promises made by the government were not fulfilled. Thus, social studies teacher Gregory Irwin is skeptical about the new bill.

A bill which passed in Missouri in 1998 added a 21 percent tax to riverboat casinos. The money gained through the new tax was intended to be an addition to the previously available funding for primary and secondary education; however, it ended up replacing the already available funding, rather than adding to it.

“When [the casino bill] happened, they had to make cuts in all levels of education,” Irwin said. “As a voter, before I would want to pass this new bill [on smoking], I would want to be sure that they couldn’t do the same thing again.”

Although the casino tax did not funnel the funding into public education as promised, it was successful in raising the money quickly and efficiently.

Still said although her motivation for HB1478 is to add to available funding for public education at primary, secondary and collegiate levels, she would not be opposed to the money from the additional tax simply going into general revenue for the state.

“Our state has severe budget challenges right now,” Still said. “I have been looking at what other states have done, and I noticed that all of them have considerably higher excise taxes.”

Coyne worries although ‘well intentioned,’ the bill will be difficult for the consumer who, like him, cannot give up smoking and will simply have to fork over the extra dollar for each pack.

Many days Coyne has to even decide whether to drive to school or to smoke because his dollar will only stretch so far. If the bill passes, Coyne does not believe it would be enough of a detriment for someone to quit smoking and instead just become an added expense.

“People think it’s easy to quit,” Coyne said. “When I try to quit, it’s like every single second my head is exploding; I want one so bad.”
By Maria Kalitzandonakes