January 30, 2009
Kristin Mamrack -
According to data from the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, Mississippi is one of six states whose cigarette tax has not seen an increase since 1999 or earlier.
At 18 cents, the state''s tax currently is one of the lowest in the nation -- New Jersey has the highest at $2.57, according to the Federation of Tax Administrators. But legislation under negotiation in the state House of Representatives and Senate has left local smokers and merchants with mixed reactions.
"(Increasing the tax) probably wouldn''t keep me from smoking, because I would still buy them," said Tammy Bush, an employee at Tobacco Warehouse in Columbus. "But it would affect a lot of people''s habits, cutting into their grocery money, gas money, health care money. It cuts into all that.
"If they do raise it, they shouldn''t raise it a dollar," she added. "I don''t think they should raise it at all."
Bush isn''t worried an increased tax would hurt business significantly at the Tobacco Warehouse.
"People still come in and buy the higher-priced cigarettes now," she noted.
The state Senate Thursday voted for a bill to increase the cigarette tax to 49 cents per pack; the House earlier adopted legislation to increase the tax to $1. Lawmakers are negotiating a compromise.
Charlie Ricks, a Tobacco Warehouse customer, is worried the revenue from increased taxes won''t be wisely spent.
"I think it''s a bunch of junk," he responded bluntly, when asked his feelings on a cigarette tax hike. "''Cause they don''t need the money for that.
"They''re going to use it for their own selves," he added.
"I have ambivalent feelings about the increase in the cigarette tax," a local attorney, Donna Smith, said. "The state certainly needs to find a way to make up for lost sales taxes, automobile taxes, et cetera, in order to maintain a minimum level of service to our citizens and a sin tax is always the favored way to do that.
"However, the sin tax seems to be duplicative in this age where the trend is not to allow smoking in public," she continued. "You''re punished for smoking by imposition of a tax and then told you can''t smoke, period!"
Smith said an increase isn''t likely to change her smoking habits.
"I only smoke in certain social situations and usually smoke less than two packs per month," she explained. "Even the imposition of a sin tax of more than $1 per pack would be unlikely to change my minimal smoking habit.
"An increase of up to a dollar per pack, until such time as the economy improves, seems reasonable so long as the revenue from the tax is strictly utilized to maintain minimum levels of service in areas such as Medicaid and education," she added. "I would certainly re-evaluate my smoking impulses if taxes were increased by $2 or more per pack."
"In these days of economic strife, I''m willing to pay a higher tax as part of a greater good," said Scotty Daniels, a local TV and radio personality. "(An increased tax) would definitely change my habits. The higher the tax gets, I would definitely have to quit."
Increasing the tax to $1 a pack would "limit (his) cigarette ration to about four or less a day," Daniels added.
He declined to suggest an appropriate increase, but noted his habit might end if the tax were high.
"I don''t think I could justify paying much more than 25 percent more per pack," he said.
"Everything else is going up, so I guess it is now time for cigarette prices to increase," said another smoker, Debbie Mason. "I am not sure if the tax hike of 49 cents will change my smoking habits immediately, but if there would be a $1-per-pack increase, my purchasing cigarettes would hopefully slow down.
"I would, however, like this increase to be put aside for public school education," she continued. "This is one area that is always having budget crises, and the main area (where funding) always needs to be increased. One other area that would greatly benefit would be the state''s elderly care program."
In Alabama, smokers pay a cigarette tax of 42 cents per pack and some local merchants are worried a higher tax in Mississippi will drive some customers across the state line.
"We have a few that come from other towns and states now and they buy a lot here, ''cause it''s so much higher (in their state now)," said Patricia Lee, manager of Soco 57 on Military Road. "I don''t think (the tax) should raise at all. Gas prices are already so high, so why raise (cigarette) prices?"