state medical association

Mississippi Medical Association President Dr. William Grantham has been traveling around Mississippi, aiming to build bridges and reduce the state’s smoking rates.

The Clinton family physician and the medical association are proposing a $1.50 hike in the cigarette tax, which would mean smokers would pay $2.18 in tax on every pack. The additional revenue would generate an estimated $166 million, well over a third of the $400 million needed for infrastructure.

“This is a public health initiative more than anything else,” Grantham said. “Where the revenue goes is less relevant than that it needs to get done.”

Higher taxes encourage existing smokers to quit; it is especially effective in diminishing youth smoking. Fewer smokers decrease the rates of cancer, lung disease, heart attacks and strokes, he said.

“Cigarette taxes have not increased since 2009,” Grantham said. “We’re way below the national average.”

Mississippi smokers currently pay 68 cents in tax per pack; the national average is $1.70 per pack. With bipartisan support, the state senate passed a cigarette tax increase during the 2018 session, but it did not clear the state house, Grantham said. The physician group hopes pairing the cigarette tax with infrastructure revenue might gain traction if the governor calls a special session.

“There will clearly be some smokers upset, but it’s the right thing to do,” Grantham said.

The American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network supports increasing cigarette taxes as an effective way to prevent kids from smoking in the first place.

“By increasing the tobacco tax, Mississippi lawmakers can help overcome the tobacco epidemic,” said Kimberly Hughes, Mississippi government relations director at the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network. “This is an opportunity to not only save money and generate revenue, but most importantly, save lives.”

Area legislators said they aren’t opposed to a cigarette tax increase as a public health measure, but they had concerns about the medical association’s proposal.

State Rep. Shane Aguirre, R-Tupelo, said he believes it would be ill-advised for cigarette revenues to fund roads.

“If they raise the tax on cigarettes, it should be put toward funding Medicaid shortfall,” Aguirre said, because health repercussions of long-term cigarette use contribute to increased health care costs.

An increased gas tax makes more sense to cover maintenance on roads and bridges, Aguirre said. Those driving more miles on Mississippi roads would shoulder a greater responsibility for repairing them.

State House Speaker Philip Gunn has proposed an increase in the gas tax, paired with a decrease in income tax, as a potential solution for infrastructure funding.

State Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, believes the current proposals ignore the real problem – that the state has made billions in cuts aimed at corporations over the past several years. Cigarette taxes and gas taxes can’t cover the hole, he said. A public health debate on cigarettes should be a separate issue and include all tobacco products.

“We’ve got to have real revenue so we can have roads and schools,” Bryan said.

The first step should be reversing $400 million in tax cuts that are on the books but have yet to kick in, he said.

“I’m not going to support any new taxes unless they first stop the tax cuts from kicking in,” Bryan said.

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