Missouri group gains support for tobacco tax increase

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COLUMBIA - A Missouri group advocating a tobacco tax increase to fund early childhood education and health initiatives is gaining support.

Raise Your Hand for Kids has gained support from more than 100 groups for a 50 cent cigarette tax increase to be included on the 2016 general election ballot. The last three proposed tobacco tax increases, in 2002, 2006, and 2012, failed with voters.

Erin Brower, executive director of Raise Your Hand for the Kids, said the support is encouraging, even with the election more than a year away.

"The past three attempts have failed, and we know this is the best economic development investment for our state," Brower said. "We've been working really hard on it, so getting people to support something as important as this, and support it early on, has been a huge success for us."  

Missouri currently has the lowest tobacco tax in the country at 17 cents. Jessica Olver, mom of six-month-old James, said she thinks it would be beneficial to raise the tax.

"I think it's definitely worth it," Olver said. "We're actually from Toronto, and we're actually used to a huge sales tax on tobacco. That's very common there, and that's used for social programming. So I think it's something that would be great here as well."

But Ron Leone, executive director of The Missouri Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association, has said the increase is too high.

"It's outrageous and unfair," Leone said. "It's a near 300 percent tax increase."

The money collected would be distributed to counties across the state to invest in existing health and education programs for children up to five years old, according to the Early Childhood Health and Education Trust Fund Act. 

Brower said the early health screenings would include hearing, dental, vision and behavioral health assessments and the education portion would give money to programs like Parents as Teachers and teacher training. Raise Your Hand for Kids said the tax would add $250 million to early childhood programs and could have a financial impact in Boone County.

"Early Education is a top priority in Columbia, but there is a problem with lack of resources," Brower said. "Columbia is doing great things around early childhood, but they can do so much more. And if we do raise the tobacco tax, it would bring about $6.7 million to Boone County for early childhood and health education for kids birth to five."

Olver said, "I think it's a great idea. It's a creative solution for making money that will help out young families in the area. And the benefit of that money will be with the kids, which is excellent."

She said she hope the initiative would create more programming for her son now and when he's old enough for school.