Chairmen tamp down talk of big jump in tobacco tax

Published 10:06 pm Monday, November 27, 2017

It’s been nearly a decade since a former tobacco lobbyist signed a law that increased the Mississippi’s state cigarette tax from 18 cents to 68 cents a pack.

Now, about 20 health advocacy groups are starting to push for a tax increase of $1.50 a pack, plus “parallel” increases on chewing tobacco, during the 2018 legislative session.

They say the plan could generate about $200 million a year for the state budget and make smoking and dipping more expensive to deter young people from starting a tobacco habit that could cause addiction and long-term health problems.

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However, the chairmen of the tax-writing committees are tamping down expectations.

In separate interviews with The Associated Press last week, House Ways and Means Chairman Jeff Smith and Senate Finance Chairman Joey Fillingane said the advocates are unlikely to get the full $1.50 a pack increase — and there’s no guarantee they will get anything at all.

Smith, a Republican from Columbus, said four of the people pushing the tobacco tax have met with him privately.

“Gosh, I don’t want to discourage them because they were so excited and positive,” Smith said. “I told the group that I didn’t anticipate $1.50 a pack ever passing.”

Smith said he would be willing to sponsor a bill with a $1 a pack tax increase “with the understanding that I wouldn’t be pushing $1.”

That roughly translates to the chairman saying he will put a car on the road but won’t take it out of neutral. The car might go somewhere, but only if a bunch of people get behind it and push really hard.

Fillingane, a Republican from Sumrall, said a $1.50 a pack increase seems “extraordinarily high.”

“I’m not saying there’s no amount that might be reasonable,” Fillingane said, adding that perhaps Mississippi could consider “parity” with its four neighboring states. Tennessee’s tax is 62 cents a pack and Alabama’s is 67.5 cents. Louisiana’s is $1.08 a pack, and Arkansas’ is $1.15.

The average state cigarette tax is $1.72 a pack, according to Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, a Washington-based supports making cigarettes more expensive.

Mississippi’s 68 cents a pack is the 39th-highest cigarette tax among the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Connecticut has the highest state tax, at $4.35 a pack, and tobacco-growing Virginia has the lowest, at 30 cents a pack.

Republican Haley Barbour was elected Mississippi governor in 2003 after lobbying for several high-profile clients in Washington, including tobacco companies. During his first several years as governor, he resisted proposals to increase the tobacco tax. In 2009, he dropped his opposition and signed the 50-cents-per-pack increase after a commission that he appointed recommended the change.

The 2009 law did not increase taxes on smokeless tobacco. Smith said getting a tax increase on chewing tobacco would be as difficult now as it was then, because that could dig right into the wallets of some legislators. On the House floor, Smith sits in a row with three other representatives, and he said two of the three use chewing tobacco.

Among the groups lobbying for the tobacco tax increase are the American Cancer Society, the American Lung Association, the American Heart Association, the Mississippi State Medical Association and groups representing nurses, physician assistants, family physicians, emergency physicians, psychiatrists and anesthesiologists.

Dr. Bill Grantham, the medical association president, said research shows that every 10 percent increase in the price of cigarettes results in about a 7 percent decrease in smoking by young people.

“A tobacco tax increase would truly save lives in Mississippi,” Grantham said.

Emily Wagster Pettus has covered Mississippi government and politics since 1994. Follow her on Twitter at EWagsterPettus.