Legislature fails Tobacco tax impasse reveals lack of public policy maturity

Saltillo High School’s students set an example of leadership for a healthier Mississippi on Wednesday with a dramatic day of no-tobacco pledges, but the Mississippi Legislature, which pays lip service to setting a good example, failed to follow with an agreement setting a higher tobacco tax.
It’s so much easier to play politics than practice leadership, so the Legislature (both chambers) took the easy path, choosing misplaced ideology and probably pressure from tobacco-industry lobbyists in refusing even a final serious discussion as the action deadline passed.
Compare Saltillo High’s commitment to the Legislature’s inaction:
n Saltillo’s Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD) chapter soberly led considering tobacco’s toll in Mississippi: 101 deaths per week from tobacco-induced illness, powerfully symbolized with 101 empty pairs of shoes lined down the main hallway.
n Kids signed a pledge: “I pledge not to be a statistic.” That is, they will not smoke and become a tobacco-related-death-or-illness number.
The Legislature, for its part, ignored compelling statistics related to disease and our state’s woeful financial prospects, doing nothing to raise Mississippi’s third-lowest-nationwide tobacco tax – 18 cents per pack.
It refused to even seriously consider adopting a tax equal to neighboring states’ average: 64 cents per pack. The nationwide average is $1.21, and the House’s initial increase of 82 cents per pack would have lifted Mississippi to $1 per pack, higher than the surrounding-states’ average, but lower than nationwide.
The Senate would do much less. Its leaders say it can’t go higher than 60 cents per pack (a 42-cent increase), and it apparently looks over its shoulder at how Gov. Barbour, a former Big Tobacco lobbyist, is furrowing his brow.
The House plan, by calculation of the State Tax Commission, would generate about $190 million per year, more than covering the $90 million more needed for increases in Medicaid expense.
That would leave tens of millions of dollars left over in case the Tax Commission is off on its estimate, or to apply in some way to a $400 million lowering of the revenue estimate for 2010 and shortfalls requiring further budget cuts this year.
An earlier numbers-crunching of a Senate plan at 55 cents per pack would generate an estimated $85 million, leaving a gap in necessary Medicaid funding.
Gov. Barbour supports a $90 million tax on hospitals to cover the Medicaid issue, and the hospital association has agreed that its affected members could tolerate $45 million. Barbour also says he supports a tobacco tax increase; he has not said precisely how high he’s willing to go.
All those intertwined issues rise from a baseline goal – carefully articulated by health experts and anti-tobacco advocates – that higher tobacco taxes’ greatest good is in reducing tobacco use, particularly cigarette smoking, specifically among children and adolescents. National studies support that claim.
The higher cost discourages use among students like those at Saltillo and all other schools because as an economic class they don’t have much income, and a higher cost for cigarettes becomes an important pocketbook issue.
A general overview offers compelling health-based reasons, authoritatively reported by the Centers for Disease Control and its affiliates:
n Tobacco use is the leading preventable cause of disease and premature death in the United States. The 2004 Surgeon General’s report found convincing evidence for a direct causal relationship between tobacco use and these cancers: lung and bronchial, laryngeal, oral cavity and pharyngeal, esophageal, stomach, pancreatic, kidney and renal pelvis, urinary bladder, and cervical cancers and acute myelogenous leukemia (AML).
n Tobacco-induced cancers are higher among African-Americans, a red flag in Mississippi, which has the highest percentage of African-American population in the nation (between 35 percent and 39 percent). Further, higher incidence rates of lung and laryngeal cancer occur in the South compared with other regions, consistent with higher smoking patterns.
The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids cites disturbing statistics about Mississippi:
n 19.2 percent of Mississippi high school students smoke.
n 4,200 kids become new smokers every year.
n 7.8 million packs of cigarettes are bought or smoked by Mississippi kids each year.
n 24 percent of Mississippi adults (516,000 men and woman) smoke in Mississippi; the national rate is only 19.7 percent.
n 4,700 Mississippians die each year from their own smoking.
n 69,000 kids alive today will die prematurely from tobacco-induced illnesses.
Suspend the legislative rules. Adopt a tobacco tax increase at least to the surrounding states’ average. Save thousands of Mississippians’ lives, and help fund valuable state-budget programs in the process.

Joe Rutherford