RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Asking voters to raise taxes on themselves is a tough sell, but there are initiatives around the country doing just that. In Missouri, it's the cigarette tax. Missouri has the lowest cigarette tax of any state, and some of the highest smoking and lung cancer rates. St. Louis Public Radio's Veronique LaCapra reports.
VERONIQUE LACAPRA, BYLINE: The state tax on cigarettes here in Missouri is only 17 cents. Compare that to neighboring Kansas, where it's 79 cents, or Illinois, where it's a $1.98. And in New York? There you'll pay an extra $4.35 in state tax on each pack of cigarettes. The Missouri initiative would raise the state's cigarette tax from that 17 cents to 90 cents a pack.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Any smokes, dear?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I'd like three packs of Marlboro Reds in a box.
LACAPRA: At Dirt Cheap, a St. Louis-area discount liquor and cigarette chain, bright orange and yellow anti-tax campaign signs scream out the slogan: Enough is enough. There are a lot of shoppers here from across the border in Illinois stocking up on cheaper cigarettes like Deb Sarensen, who isn't unhappy about the prospect of higher cigarette taxes.
DEB SARENSEN: It's ridiculous. Why are they raising taxes when they need to be cutting all the ridiculous spending that they're doing?
LACAPRA: Proponents of the cigarette tax say raising prices not only helps people smoke less, but prevents lots of teens from lighting up in the first place. But Ron Leone, who's leading the fight against the tax increase and whose trade group represents convenience stores and gas stations, says Missourians don't want to be taxed into quitting.
RON LEONE: We're hearing a lot of outrage.
LACAPRA: Leone's been crisscrossing the state in his red Toyota Camry, distributing those not-so-subtle campaign signs. But this time around, he doesn't have big tobacco's big dollars to back him. Unlike in 2006, when companies like Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds poured millions into the campaign to defeat a similar Missouri tax hike, they're sitting this one out. That's because this measure deals a tough blow to their competitors who make off-brand cigarettes. It would raise their prices even more.
Leone argues that higher cigarette taxes would cost the state tens of millions dollars in sales tax revenues.
LEONE: So it hurts small businesses, it hurts the consumer, it hurts all taxpayers, because all of us are going to have to fill the hole of the less sales tax that we're generating as a result of this tax increase.
LACAPRA: But supporters of the increase say Leone's calculations don't make sense. Their challenge is to sell a tax hike in this anti-tax, anti-big government state. That's a challenge Misty Snodgrass of the American Cancer Society isn't afraid to take on. She's been driving around Missouri in a big yellow school bus, stressing that the money will go to help kids.
MISTY SNODGRASS: Fifty percent of the money generated would go towards local public schools, 30 percent would go towards higher education, and 20 percent towards tobacco prevention and cessation.
LACAPRA: Snodgrass says Missourians are tired of paying the high health care costs that go along with having the cheapest cigarettes in the country.
SNODGRASS: And they want to take a stand against the big tobacco companies, and say, you know what, we're done being the lowest tobacco tax, we want to have better schools, we want to have - save lives, and we want to help kids from ever starting to smoke.
LACAPRA: University of Illinois economist Frank Chaloupka has spent 25 years studying the impact of state tobacco polices. He says research shows that when the price of cigarettes goes up, smoking rates drop and with them, tobacco-related medical costs.
FRANK CHALOUPKA: And then, at the same time, you generate real revenues as a result of the tax increase. So the state would gain revenues at the same time as public health would be improved.
LACAPRA: Even with the proposed increase, Chaloupka says Missouri's new 90 cent cigarette tax would still be well-below the national average of a dollar-forty-nine. Whether that's still too high for Missouri voters will be determined on Election Day.
For NPR News, I'm Veronique LaCapra in St. Louis.
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MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.