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Tobacco tax: Support growing for increase

The battle lines are again being drawn for an effort to raise Mississippi’s cigarette tax for the first time since 1985.

At 18 cents per pack, Mississippi’s cigarette tax is lower than all but two other states and well below the national average of about $1 a pack. With an inordinately large percentage of Mississippians dependent on Medicaid for their health care, the logic of subsidizing smoking through ridiculously low cigarette taxes while at the same time asking the taxpayers to bear the ever-increasing costs of public health care is simply nonexistent.

Research in 2004 at the Mississippi Health Policy Research Center at Mississippi State University reiterates prior polling that consistently shows that over two-thirds of Mississippi taxpayers support an increase in the state’s cigarette taxes. That support is buoyed by the growing number of Mississippi cities that are instituting outright smoking bans in public places.

The primary obstacle to raising cigarette taxes in Mississippi is Gov. Haley Barbour. The former tobacco lobbyist defends his veto of legislative efforts to raise the cigarette tax by saying he’s “against raising anyone’s taxes.”

While that makes a nice political ditty, Barbour’s statement is downright intellectually dishonest. If he were really against “raising anybody’s taxes,” he would support a tobacco tax increase that would reduce smoking and thereby reduce the growth in taxes necessary to support public health care needs in the state.

Dr. Dan Jones, the leader of the University of Mississippi Medical Center, has stepped up to the plate to support a cigarette tax hike despite the obvious political risk of alienating the governor. Why? Because Jones knows the health risks and the public health care costs associated with Mississippi continuing to subsidize smoking through ridiculously low cigarette taxes in this poor state.

The better question is why don’t Gov. Barbour and his legislative toadies over at the Capitol know those things as well and act accordingly?