Our Opinion: Don't get fooled again with tobacco tax hike

Instead of a petition campaign to raise Missouri’s cigarette tax, health organizations should petition lawmakers to redirect the tobacco settlement funds they diverted.

A number of health groups in the state are promoting an initiative petition campaign that would ask voters to increase tobacco taxes, including a 73-cent hike for a pack of cigarettes, now taxed at 17 cents.

The proposal is designed to channel increased tobacco tax revenue to smoking prevention and cessation programs.

Efforts to curb the health hazards — and consequent medical costs — are commendable.

Smoking is and expensive and unhealthy habit. Avoiding or quitting smoking is perhaps the single greatest step toward a healthy lifestyle.

In addition, Missouri’s 17-cent-a-pack cigarette tax is the lowest in the nation; the national average is $1.46 a pack.

Our concern is such an effort would be well under way if Missouri officials had not diverted millions of dollars from a court settlement intended precisely for that purpose.

A legal settlement is not intended to be a windfall, it is intended as compensation for damages. Missouri, however, subverted that intention.

According to the Campaign For Tobacco-Free Kids, Missouri has allocated $60,000 for tobacco prevention in fiscal year 2012, less than 0.1 percent of the $244 million it will receive from settlement payments and tobacco taxes.

The proposed initiative petition would ask voters to approve a law, not a constitutional amendment.

A law is preferable, because tax rates should not be enshrined in the Constitution.

Voter-approved laws, however, can be altered by the Legislature, as evidenced by the legislative changes to the voter-approved Proposition B animal welfare regulations.

Consequently, lawmakers would have power to amend the voter-approved initiative, just as they diverted tobacco-settlement funds.

A popular axiom states: “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”

Health groups may mean well, but Missourians don’t deserve to be fooled again.

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