You have the opportunity, provided you’re a registered Missouri voter, to block a tax this Tuesday that would reinforce the cycle of poverty and unfairly burden those in greatest financial need. Missouri’s Proposition B, billed as a public health measure and an opportunity to bolster education funding, is nothing more than a shameful money-grab targeting the smoking minority.
Proposition B would increase Missouri’s cigarette tax greater than five times. The funding supposedly would go toward Missouri education and smoking cessation programs, according to an Oct. 8 Kansas City Star article. At first, this sounds like a win-win situation — education would benefit, while smoking rates theoretically would decrease.
The reality, however, is that this tax would generate additional funds at the expense of Missouri’s poorest. Thirty four percent of adult Americans earning $6,000 to $11,999 per year smoke, compared to only 13 percent of Americans who earn at least $90,000 per year, according to a March 2008 Gallup study. The predicted $283 million to $423 million per year generated by this proposition, according to the Kansas City Star article, would be paid by Missouri’s poorest. Those who struggle most to make ends meet, who are faced with tough decisions between paying the month’s rent or the electric bill, would be the tax base for this quintupled tobacco tax.
Those who argue Missourians who don’t want to pay the tax should just quit smoking are forgetting a simple fact that any regular smoker can attest to — smoking is highly addictive. Nicotine’s addictive capabilities are similar to those of heroin, according to a University of Minnesota study. Of those who smoke, about 70 percent want to quit, according to a Nov. 2011 USA Today study. For many elderly smokers who began smoking before the true risks of tobacco use were known and have smoked for decades, smoking cessation is virtually impossible. Of those who smoke, only 6 percent were able to quit successfully last year, according to the same USA Today study. Legislators prey on the fact tobacco taxes always will have a tax base — most smokers simply cannot stop, and thus have no choice in whether they pay these unfairly burdening taxes.
Although the funds generated from this proposed tax will be dedicated to education and smoking cessation programs, will Missouri education and Missourians actually benefit? The Missouri budget is fluid – though funds raised from this tax would be devoted to education, there’s nothing stopping Missouri legislators from using the generated revenue as an excuse to re-appropriate other sources of education funding. Historically, it’s quite common for legislators to justify cuts of equal or greater magnitude in state appropriations when these new revenue streams become available, according to the Kansas City Star article.
This proposition also would make higher education less accessible for the smoking demographic of Missourians. College is an expensive endeavor and, for many, especially those with low incomes, requires significant saving and financial planning. For these Missourians, the choice increasingly will come down to the immediate satisfaction of purchasing a pack of cigarettes or the long-term gratification of being able to pay for a college education. In New York, a state with relatively high taxes on cigarettes and other tobacco products, low income individuals spent 25 percent of their income on their tobacco habit, according to a Sept. 19 New York Times article. If Missouri continues to raise their tobacco taxes, the prospects of many low-income Missourians to ever attain a college education go up in smoke.
I strongly support an increase in funding to education, but burdening Missouri’s poorest with supplying that funding morally is wrong. This tax measure would disproportionally burden those already struggling to survive, while denying them the opportunity to further their education. Billing Proposition B as a health measure is simply misleading — Most smokers are unable to quit and have no realistic choice in whether they pay the tax. There’s also no guarantee educational institutions actually will see an increase in funding. A vote against Proposition B is a vote for responsible taxation in Missouri.
Robert Overmann is a junior English major from Cape Girardeau, Mo.