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Our Opinion: Proposed tax hike returns, but diversion continues

A tax increase has been proposed, in part to fill a void created because the state continually diverts money intended for that purpose.

Tobacco is, again, the target of increased taxation. The American Cancer Society, health professionals and other organizations have submitted an initiative petition to hike the tax on a pack of cigarettes by 80 cents and to impose similar increases on other tobacco products.

The proposal was submitted Tuesday to the secretary of state to begin the necessary steps — ballot title, fiscal note, petition circulation and certification — all necessary to place a proposed constitutional amendment before Missouri voters on the November 2012 ballot.

Distribution of the tax revenue would be: 50 percent to the state’s public elementary and secondary schools; 30 percent to colleges and universities; and 20 percent for tobacco prevention and cessation programs.

Those programs were the intended beneficiary of a 1998 multi-state tobacco settlement.

But, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids web site: “Our latest report, issued November 17, 2010, finds that the states have cut funding for tobacco prevention and cessation programs to the lowest level since 1999, when they first received tobacco settlement funds.”

Missouri is among the worst, ranking 48th among the states in funding tobacco prevention programs, according to the web site, which determined Missouri’s spending is so infinitesimal, it amounts to zero percent of the estimated $245 million the state collects each year from settlement payments and tobacco taxes.

The state’s tax on a pack of cigarettes now is 17 cents, in comparison to the nationwide average of $1.34.

The most recent proposal is hardly the first incarnation of a proposed tax hike for tobacco products.

Tobacco tax increases were placed before voters in 2002 and again in 2006. Both were rejected.

We believe a factor contributing to those defeats is awareness among Missourians that state government consistently has diverted settlement money received from tobacco companies.

Money from a court settlement is not designed to be discretionary; it is intended to remedy damages.

In this case, the money was intended as compensation for past health care costs caused by tobacco use, as well as tobacco cessation and prevention programs to mitigate future costs.

Diversion of the money hasn’t changed. Why should the outcome of the vote?

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