Cigarette tax hike again eyed for 2019 session

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Rogelio V. Solis, AP

Sen. Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula, reviews a handout before a working group of legislators at the Capitol in Jackson in 2016.

Even though Mississippi’s Republican-led Legislature prides itself on keeping taxes low, momentum is building for one kind of tax increase.

Nearly three-fourths of Mississippians support increasing the state’s tax on cigarettes, which is the 12th lowest in the nation, according to a survey by Public Opinion Strategies, a Republican polling firm based in Washington, D.C.

The firm surveyed 500 registered voters by phone across the state in late October.

A similar poll yielded nearly identical results last year, but although a measure moving through the Legislature during the 2018 session garnered more behind-the-scenes support than in previous years, it ultimately died with little discussion.

“Why aren’t we representing the people of Mississippi?” said Sen. Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula, a strong proponent of legislation to increase the cigarette tax by $1.50. “Does the Legislature reflect what the people are or are you reflecting your own interest?”

Wiggins also called out lawmakers who refuse to support any tax increases but voted to impose new taxes on owners of electric vehicles during the 2018 special session.

“That doesn’t make sense,” Wiggins said. “You’re either against taxes or you’re not.”

The American Heart Association, the Mississippi State Medical Association, and roughly 30 other state and national organizations — together, the Invest in a Healthier Future Coalition — will again lobby for the measure during the 2019 legislative session, nearly a decade after the state last raised the cigarette tax.

Cigarette smoking directly contributes an estimated $1.23 billion in annual health care costs in Mississippi, according to the “Toll of Tobacco” report from Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

Wiggins advocates for a cigarette tax increase that will go to pay for deficits within the state’s roughly $6 billion Medicaid program, the federal health insurance program for the poor and disabled, and for smoking cessations programs.

More than one-fifth of adults in Mississippi smoke, significantly more than the national average of 14 percent. The high smoking rate contributes to the state’s overall poor health outcomes.

Invest in a Healthier Future Coalition has gathered data to show a $1.50 tax increase — which would raise the average per-pack cost from around $5.50 to roughly $7  — would curb smoking statewide.

Every 10 percent increase in cigarette price translates to between 5 and 15 percent reduction in cigarette smoking for people under 18, according to a 2014 Congressional Budget Office summary.

Mississippians also support higher taxes for other public priorities. A September NBC News/SurveyMonkey poll found that 60 percent of those surveyed support increased taxes for schools and 62 percent support increased taxes to improve infrastructure — roads and bridges — across the state.

The state’s largest physician group suggested paying for infrastructure improvements with an increased cigarette tax but the proposal went largely ignored.

Last year, each of the bills to increase the cigarette tax — two in the House and three in the Senate — died in committee, meaning they did not reach either floor for a full vote.

A bond bill that passed the Senate floor in 2018 did not increase the tax but was written in a way that it could be revised to include the tax hike later in the session. That bill died in the House Ways and Means Committee, chaired by Rep. Jeff Smith, R-Columbus.