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Survey: State should raise taxes on smokes

A new survey by a retirees’ group shows strong support in Mississippi for increasing the cigarette tax and reducing the grocery tax — a proposal that’s shaping up as one of the top issues for the election-year legislative session that starts in January.

A similar plan died earlier this year when Gov. Haley Barbour vetoed it and lawmakers couldn’t muster the two-thirds majority to override the veto. Barbour says he hasn’t budged in his opposition.

“When I ran for governor, I’ve said a few thousand times, that I’m against raising anybody’s taxes. I meant it,” Republican Barbour said Wednesday.

Almost 100 AARP members and volunteers gathered Wednesday at the state Agriculture and Forestry Museum for a news conference to release the tax survey that the group commissioned.

Mississippi AARP director Sherri Davis-Garner said 85 percent of the people surveyed said they’d like to see the 7 percent grocery tax be either eliminated or cut in half. She also said 64 percent support increasing the cigarette tax if the increase caused some people to quit smoking.

“Our state has the highest food tax in the nation,” Davis-Garner said, prompting a murmur of disapproval from the audience.

Mississippi’s cigarette tax is 18 cents a pack — the third-lowest in the nation.

The survey of 803 self-identified registered voters in Mississippi was conducted Aug. 31-Sept. 12 by a Richmond, Va.-based firm called Alan Newman Research Inc., and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points. The firm used random-digit dialing to contact people by telephone.

Fifty percent of those surveyed said they would be more likely to support a state senator or representative who supports a bill to increase the cigarette tax and decrease the food tax. Most lawmakers are expected to seek re-election next year, and Barbour has said he’s likely to try for a second term.

Elveata Williams of Braxton, a retired U.S. Postal Service window clerk, said a reduction in the grocery tax would help her stretch her own budget.

“Personally, I feel that the senior people need a break, with so many things going up in price,” Williams, 68, said at the AARP gathering. “We need something, too, where the younger people wouldn’t be interested in smoking.”

Williams said she smoked for two or three years, starting in 1969, and she believes increasing the cost of cigarettes would steer some young people away from smoking.

During the 2006 legislative session, AARP was part of Communities for a Clean Bill of Health, a coalition of health advocacy groups that pushed for the grocery-cigarette tax swap proposal.