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Amendment 3 Proposes Increasing Tobacco Taxes

By Kelley Weiss

Kansas City, MO – Months of legal battles and controversial campaign ads have surrounded Amendment 3 - a proposed ballot issue to raise tobacco taxes to fund health care and anti-smoking programs in Missouri. Supporters of the amendment say Missouri needs to bring tobacco taxes up to the national average and curb teens from picking up the habit. Opponents claim the amendment will force the state to pay for health care and will unfairly tax a minority population. KCUR's Kelley Weiss reports.

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The proposed constitutional amendment is asking voters to approve an 80-cent tax increase on a pack of cigarettes and a 20 percent tax increase on other tobacco products. Right now Missouri has the second lowest tobacco tax in the country and the third highest smoking rate.

The supporters of the measure, Committee for a Healthy Future, are backed by the American Lung Association, American Cancer Society and various other state healthcare organizations. Spokesperson for the supporters, Cindy Erickson, says smokers need to pay for their habit, which now the strains the state's budget.

"It's going to help save lives, it's going to improve access to health care for low-income Missourians and it's going to keep our children from smoking."

She says it costs the state hundreds of millions of dollars to fund Medicaid services for smoking-related illnesses. The ballot language outlines that the tax will generate a minimum of $350 million a year. Erickson says that money will go towards making Missourians healthier.

Opponents of the tax dispute how the money will be used and have launched a TV ad campaign.

Ron Leone, executive director of Missouri Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association, says the amendment does not clearly state how the money will be used. He says it will require the state to pay healthcare costs for all low-income Missourians.

Ron Leone: "They are trying to surreptitiously place in our constitution a fundamental constitutional right to health care for the poorest of the poor in Missouri."

An attorney for the supporters, Chuck Hatfield, says that Leone is flat out wrong. The amendment says only new money from the tax will pay for healthcare. And, he says, the Missouri Supreme Court's unanimous decision to deny the opponent's appeal questioning how the money would be spent proves it.

Chuck Hatfield: "If in fact the tobacco tax was requiring any additional tax money outside of that which is raised from smokers under this amendment it would be unconstitutional and the Supreme Court has specifically and clearly rejected that argument."

Arguments aside, bumping up tobacco taxes to bolster state budgets has been a common trend. In fact, in the last six years 43 states have increased tobacco taxes. In this mid-term election Arizona, California and South Dakota are also asking voters to raise tobacco taxes.

Bert Waisanen, a fiscal analyst for the National Conference of State Legislators, says voters prefer taxing cigarettes.

Bert Waisanen: "I've observed just a different level of sympathy for smoker's tax burden rather than other types of tax payers for income taxes or property taxes and it's just kind of the way it's been going when it comes to fiscal choices it seems."

Opponent to the tax, Ron Leone, says once you target smokers, who's next on the list?

Ron Leone: "I can almost guarantee it's going to be alcohol, it's going to possibly be gas guzzling cars, it's going to be guns, it's going to be fast food which you often hear about with trans fat."

But supporters say they're not concerned with these issues. They say they're only focused on getting more people to stop smoking and treating diseases caused by smoking by taxing tobacco more. And, with recent budget cuts taking 100,000 Missourians off the Medicaid rolls the tax money could help stem what they call a state healthcare crisis.

Although, getting voters to pass any taxes in a traditionally low-tax state like Missouri can be difficult. Four years ago a similar tobacco tax narrowly failed at the polls. That measure would have changed state law, upping the tax by 55 cents. What voters will see this time around is more strict - it's a constitutional amendment that would lock in the 80-cent tobacco tax increase.

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