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    Missouri Tobacco Tax Gains Momentum

    Proposition A supporters say it would keep children from smoking.

    ST. LOUIS -- Advocates for a ballot measure that would raise the excise tax on tobacco products in Missouri say they have a new study showing that Proposition A would save children's lives. But the state's leading association representing the convenience store and petroleum industry dismissed the report as predictable.

    Members of Citizens for a Healthy Missouri say the findings by University of Illinois at Chicago economics professor Frank Chaloupka show that passage of Proposition A would keep more than 49,000 Missouri children from smoking. And they say that would halt some 16,000 premature deaths in that age group.

    Ron Leone, who heads the Missouri Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association, opposes the measure. He said the report produced "predictable findings" by "hired guns" working strictly as a Proposition A's backers."

    Missouri's proposed 55-cent-a-pack cigarette tax increase is on the Nov. 5 ballot, with a goal of providing revenue for a Healthy Families Trust Fund. The money would be directed to health-care services such as smoking prevention programs, prescription-drug assistance for senior citizens and grants for early childhood education. The increase would raise the tax to a total of 72 cents per pack and generate an estimated $342 million in state revenues.

    But it has run into opposition from retailers. Despite the tax's goals, two local businesses and the Missouri Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association are concerned about the measure's potential impact on them.

    "Speaking as a business owner, the people are pretty well stressed out for money," said John Rowe, owner of Speedy's convenience store chain in St. Joseph, Mo. "Incomes are down, and inflation's higher. If you are a smoker and addicted to cigarettes, that is an unfair tax. It won't have a positive impact. Speaking as a citizen, the government gets enough tax, and they need to use their money more wisely."

    Rowe said a tax increase may translate into smokers deciding to spend their money on cheaper brands.

    Leone said the 324-percent tax hike would drive customers from his members' establishments. The association has organized opposition to the tax increase. "It will have a drastic and negative impact," he said. "We may have to lay off employees" because of less customer traffic in the stores."

    The state also would lose a key financial advantage of which it can boast among its neighbors. "Currently, Missouri's tobacco tax is lower than seven of our eight border states," Leone said. "That's a good thing. We're darn proud of it."

    A Missouri cigarette tax increase would spell trouble for the state's economic health, Leone added. For example, smokers could resort to making their purchases over the Internet, where cigarettes are cheaper and for which no taxes are levied.

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