Mississippi tobacco tax talks drag on

Published 8:12 am Tuesday, February 27, 2018

JACKSON (AP) — A pack of Marlboros at a convenience store near the Mississippi Capitol costs about $4.99, which includes tax. If the Legislature chooses one possible option for a cigarette tax increase, the same pack could run $5.31.

For a person who smokes a pack a day, that’s a difference of nearly $115 every year.

The push for a Mississippi tobacco tax increase has been building for months, with dozens of health advocacy groups urging the Legislature to make the cost of smoking higher as a way of pricing smokers out of the unhealthy habit.

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Some legislators followed through, drafting five bills to raise taxes from their current 68 cents per pack to at least $1 per pack. For instance, Senate Medicaid Committee Chairman Brice Wiggins’s Senate Bill 2701 would have increased cigarette taxes and directed the extra revenue that would be generated — potentially over $200 million a year — to help cover state Medicaid costs.

Despite legislators’ and lobbyists’ efforts, none of the bills survived deadlines. Revenue bills had to be passed by either the House or Senate by last Wednesday.

However, a bond bill that still survives could be amended later to increase cigarette taxes. As it stands, Senate Bill 3048 makes no change to current taxes, but by pushing it through before deadline, there remains the possibility of adding such a change before the final deadline for revenue bills in late March. The bill goes to the House for more consideration.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Joey Fillingane told The Associated Press that the goal of those pushing the higher tobacco tax is not to increase state revenue. Instead, in a state with high rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease, Fillingane said tamping down smoking by making it more expensive could be one way to improve Mississippians’ health.

Fillingane, a Republican from Sumrall, did not disclose how he would vote on an increase, though he did say in a November interview with AP that advocates’ original push to increase the tax to $1.50 per pack is “extraordinarily high.”

Compared to the rest of the United States, Mississippi’s cigarette tax is low, with the 39th highest cigarette taxes. Connecticut comes in first place at $4.35 a pack, and Virginia last at 30 cents a pack.

Mississippi’s rate is more comparable to some of its neighboring states. To the north, Tennessee’s tax is 62 cents per pack, and to the east, Alabama’s is 67.5 cents. Louisiana and Arkansas’s rates are $1.08 and $1.15 per pack, respectively.