‘Sinful’ Tax Collections Won’t Fix Budget Woes in Missouri
Missouri is strapped for cash, and state lawmakers have proposed a quick fix: hiking the cigarette tax rate. Smokers are an easy target, certainly. They choose to inhale a known carcinogen, and nonsmokers like me ultimately bear some of their health care costs. Unfortunately for Missourians, raising the rate on cigarettes or other targeted vices is unlikely to solve the state’s budget woes.
I credit lawmakers in Missouri for being forthcoming about the fact that the purpose of this tax hike is to generate tax revenue, not to discourage bad behavior. Lawmakers often attempt to discourage smoking on moral, ethical, or public health grounds with higher taxes, but that’s not the issue here — money is. No matter the reason for higher cigarette taxes, though, this policy won’t solve the state’s money problems. The tax hike will cause smokers to buy fewer cigarettes. Some will smoke less as a result, and others will quit entirely. Their personal health may benefit, but they won’t contribute any cigarette tax revenue.
Those who do continue to smoke will buy fewer cigarettes in Missouri because they will no longer be getting a comparative price break. By keeping its tax rate low relative to other states, Missouri encourages those who do smoke to buy their cigarettes within the state, and it motivates non-residents living close to the border to shop here, as well. After a rate increase, smokers living near the border would be much less likely to buy their cigarettes in Missouri when they come here to work and to attend sporting events downtown, instead buying their cigarettes in their home states and generating tax revenue there.
The eight states that border Missouri have an average tax rate of $0.90. If lawmakers hike the tax rate by $1, which is what they propose, the tax rate in Missouri will exceed the tax rate in all but one of its border states. Individuals will tend to vote with their feet and buy cigarettes elsewhere, and the state will see less tax revenue as a result.
Missouri residents and businesses would be better off if the state government tried other strategies to close the budget deficit instead. State officials should reform spending and operate within their means, looking for ways to lower tax rates across the board rather than raise them. Missouri would attract more business activity and, consequently, more tax revenue if policymakers fostered a low-tax environment.
Christine Harbin is a policy analyst for the Show-Me Institute, an independent think tank promoting free-market solutions for Missouri public policy.