Physician: Miss. cigarette tax level is ‘subsidized stupidity’

Published 4:45 pm Thursday, January 25, 2007

Keeping cigarette taxes low is “subsidized stupidity” that hurts Mississippi, the immediate past president of the American Medical Association said Wednesday.

“The public health implications of this are just horrendous,” Dr. Ed Hill of Tupelo said during a rally at the state Capitol.

Mississippi has the third lowest cigarette tax in the nation, at 18 cents a pack.

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Lawmakers this session will consider bills that would increase the cigarette tax to $1 a pack while cutting the 7 percent grocery tax in half.

In 2006, Gov. Haley Barbour vetoed two cigarette/grocery tax bills. The first would’ve increased the cigarette tax while eliminating the grocery tax over several years. The second would’ve increased the cigarette tax while cutting the grocery tax in half.

Legislators couldn’t muster enough support for the two-thirds majority to override either veto last year. This is an election year, and leaders say it’s unclear whether political dynamics have changed enough to make an override possible now.

Critics point to Barbour’s past as a Washington lobbyist whose extensive client list included tobacco companies.

Barbour, however, says his opposition to increasing the cigarette tax has nothing to do with his work history. The Republican governor — who’s seeking a second term this year — has said repeatedly that that he’s against increasing any taxes.

Barbour also says the state should not change tax rates because of economic uncertainty created by Hurricane Katrina.

A new policy report issued by the Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University says Mississippi is one of only three states that “applies full taxes to groceries with no offsetting relief for lower income families.”

“The sales tax on groceries is clearly aggressive in nature,” the report says.

About 80 people attended the rally sponsored by Communities for a Clean Bill of Health, a coalition of health advocacy and volunteer groups.

John Smith of Vicksburg, a district coordinator for the retirees’ group AARP, challenged some of the arguments Barbour has made against increasing the cigarette tax. Smith said he disagrees with Barbour’s assertion that some Mississippians might cross state lines to buy cigarettes if prices go up here.

“I’m not sure about that because of the price of gas,” Smith said.

Legislators predict that the first action on cigarette and grocery tax bills could come soon, with possible debate in committees. Some bills have been filed, and more could come.

Lawmakers in several other states, including Maine, Iowa and South Carolina, are considering cigarette tax increases this year.