Is it time for another tobacco tax increase? Part two

Published 7:00 am Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The American Cancer Society reports that smoking kills more Americans than alcohol, highway crashes, HIV, guns and illegal drugs combined. According to Gallup, the percentage of Mississippians who smoke, having declined after the 2009 cigarette tax increase, is now up to 27 percent. 

Only Kentucky and West Virginia, both tobacco producing states, have a higher rate of smoking than we do.

And 37 other states have a higher state cigarette tax than does Mississippi.  The state tax average among the 50 states is $1.68 a pack. Among our surrounding states, Mississippi’s 68 cent tax is roughly similar to Tennessee and Alabama, but Louisiana takes in $1.08 a pack and Arkansas $1.15.

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The passage of Smoke-free laws around our state has shown how decreasing smoking can improve community health. In cities like Starkville where Smoke-free laws have been put into effect, hospitals and doctors have seen a measurable 13 to 27 percent decrease in heart attack admissions, as well as decreases in heart and lung disease.

Internal documents from tobacco companies have disclosed that Big Tobacco is well aware of the effects of raising the tax on their products. From Philip Morris: “When the tax goes up, industry loses volume and profits as many smokers cut back.”  From RJ Reynolds: “If the prices were 10 percent higher, [youth smoking] would be 11.9 percent lower.”

Overall, the national rate of cigarette sales has declined sharply as cigarette taxes have increased and Americans have learned about the deathly effects of tobacco use. Unfortunately, Mississippi is bucking that trend.

And we have not even talked about the added revenue that increasing the state tax on tobacco would bring.  Revenue badly needed as legislative leaders look for ways to balance the state budget after previous years’ tax cuts.

The multi-year effort by a united range of health advocates that resulted in the 50 cent per pack cigarette tax increase in 2009 showed how difficult it is to increase tobacco taxes in our state – even with strong public support.

However, in the intervening years we have seen first-hand that decreasing tobacco use in our communities can improve everybody’s health dramatically. We know that our high rate of tobacco use – almost 1 in 3 Mississippians – is tied to our poor health status as a state.  It is not a big jump to understand that increasing Mississippi’s tobacco tax can result in better health for all Mississippians – and extra money in the bank as well.

Lynn Evans is a former Jackson School Board Member and a contributing  columnist.