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Proposal would collect money from makers of generic cigarettes

Mississippi could collect money from makers of off-brand cigarettes under a plan receiving legislative debate.

The House voted 92-28 Tuesday for a bill that potentially could take millions of dollars from cigarette companies that did not participate in the state’s 1997 settlement of a massive lawsuit against the tobacco industry.

Lawmakers said the “nonparticipating” companies make cigarettes that are sold individually, rather than by the pack, in some convenience stores, and those cigarettes are frequently purchased by young people. The companies also make relatively inexpensive generic cigarettes, not the better known brands such as Marlboros or Kools.

House Ways and Means Chairman Percy Watson, D-Hattiesburg, said collecting from the nonparticipating companies is a matter of fairness. Other lawmakers said increasing the price of off-brand cigarettes could discourage teenagers from smoking, and that could cut public health expenses a generation from now.

The bill moves to the Senate.

Similar proposals have passed the state House in the past couple of years, only to die in the other chamber.

Watson said money collected under this plan would be split among the state Veterans Affairs Board, the University of Mississippi Medical Center and volunteer fire departments.

Rep. Greg Snowden, R-Meridian, tried unsuccessfully to strip out part of the bill. Under his plan, the attorney general’s office would have to pursue litigation against the companies that didn’t participate in the 1997 settlement.

Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, said Snowden was trying to gut the bill.

“Every health organization that’s known to man has said cigarette smoking will kill you grave — yard — dead,” said Holland, an undertaker.

Snowden, a lawyer, responded that he was simply trying to give companies a fair chance to be heard in court.

“I don’t smoke cigarettes,” Snowden said. “I think they’re a horrible product. … I’m not here as an apologist for any tobacco company.”

The House rejected Snowden’s proposal before passing the bill.

Under then-Attorney General Mike Moore, a Democrat, Mississippi in 1994 became the first state to sue tobacco companies to recover the costs of treating sick smokers. Most states filed similar lawsuits in the next three years.

In 1997, dozens of states reached a multibillion dollar settlement with the tobacco industry. Mississippi negotiated its own settlement that is supposed to bring the state about $4 billion over the first 25 years.

Lawmakers said some of the “nonparticipating” companies have come into existence since 1997.

This is not the only tobacco legislation being considered this year. Lawmakers also will consider increasing the cigarette tax.

Mississippi’s tax of 18 cents a pack is the third-lowest in the nation. Republican Gov. Haley Barbour last year vetoed two bills that would’ve increased the cigarette tax while reducing the 7 percent tax on groceries.

Critics pointed to Barbour’s work as a Washington lobbyist for tobacco companies. Barbour has said repeatedly that he’s against increasing anybody’s taxes.

The bill is House Bill 1409.