Missouri already imposes the lowest cigarette tax in America, which deprives the state of needed revenue to counter tobacco’s health care costs and misses an opportunity to nudge potential new smokers away from starting. Now Gov. Mike Parson says he has no interest in learning from the state’s mistake, nor following the lead of other states that are confronting growing health concerns about vaping by boosting the taxes on it.
So-called “sin taxes” are an effective way to contain potentially harmful markets that can’t realistically be outlawed (tobacco, alcohol, gambling) and to recoup some of the fiscal and societal costs they inflict. Why close off that option at the start of a new and growing health crisis?
Vaping — smoking electronic cigarettes, initially thought to be a safe alternative to tobacco — is being blamed for dozens of deaths nationally, including at least two in Missouri. Though the lung illness still isn’t fully understood, there’s enough evidence to conclude it’s in the public interest to discourage young people from taking up this habit.
Yet, as the Post-Dispatch’s Kurt Erickson reported Monday, Parson, the elected official in the best position to start building support for a significant Missouri vaping tax, is dismissing the idea at the outset.
Even as Parson recently outlined an educational campaign to crack down on underage vaping, he opined: “I don’t know if pricing it out of someone’s reach is always the right answer.” What could be wrong with pricing a potentially deadly product out of reach of teens who are being lured to it with candy flavors?
The knee-jerk, anti-tax instincts of Jefferson City’s ruling Republicans, whom Parson leads, probably are motivating the governor’s reaction. Reluctance to tax is a legitimate political philosophy, but one that can be taken to counterproductive extremes.
One example is Missouri’s lowest-in-the-nation cigarette tax of 17 cents per pack. Even Parson acknowledges that Missouri is saddled with unusually high tobacco-related health costs — some $3 billion annually, against a relatively meager $105 million in tobacco tax revenue. Why would the state open another expensive, destructive path like that to another product by leaving vaping undertaxed?
Add to that the significant campaign contributions that Parson and other Republicans get from the vaping industry (which is intertwined with the tobacco industry), and it’s difficult not to feel like the fix is in.
Missouri law requires a statewide vote to impose major new taxes, and the voters have declined before to raise the cigarette tax. But taxing e-cigarettes — which are newer and less entrenched than tobacco — could be an easier sell.
Now is the time to sell such a tax, but it would require Parson and other top Republicans to get fully on board. Unless, of course, they’d rather wait until vaping is as big a public health nuisance as tobacco.