The Pitch: St. Louis Post-Dispatch switches position (again!) on cigarette tax

David Martin
Sep 27, 2016

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch has rescinded its decision to rescind support for the constitutional amendment to raise the cigarette tax in Missouri by 60 cents a pack.

On Monday, the paper published an editorial encouraging voters to say yes to Amendment 3, a ballot question to raise the nation’s lowest tobacco tax. Childhood health and education programs would receive most of the money from the new tax, estimated at $300 million a year.

The P-D has come full circle on Amendment 3. The paper was for it, against it and now for it again.

The P-D’s incoherence is partly of function of the weirdness that tends to arise when people get ideas about raising the state’s tobacco tax from a paltry 17 cents a pack.

Missouri voters rejected proposals to raise tax in 2002, 2006 and 2012. In each instance, anti–abortion rights groups opposed the measures. The 2012 measure, in fact, contained language expressly prohibiting the new tax money from being spent on abortion services or human cloning. But the wording was not enough to satisfy the Missouri Right to Life, which took a suspicious view of the language.

Raise Your Hand for Kids, the campaign behind Amendment 3, is also trying to head off opposition from abortion rights opponents. Like the 2012 initiative, Amendment 3 contains language about how the new taxes can’t be used for abortions or embryonic stem-cell research.

Missouri Right to Life is taking a neutral position on Amendment 3. But then Raise Your Hand for Kids faced criticism that it went too far in trying to mollify pro-life groups. In February, Washington University and the Missouri Cures Education Foundation came out against Amendment 3. State Sen. Jill Schupp, a Democrat in the St. Louis area, also withdrew her support, complaining that Amendment 3 had been “hijacked” by opponents of abortion rights and stem-cell research.

The P-D followed with an editorial calling the stem-cell language an unacceptable poison pill. “It pains us to reverse this newspaper’s support for what seemed like a worthy Missouri constitutional amendment, but we cannot advocate a clear attempt to deceive voters with what now appears to be a Trojan horse measure,” the editorial said.

The metaphor for subterfuge notwithstanding, the editorial did not mention that the Raise Your Hand for Kids campaign was beginning to receive big piles of money from the parent company of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. Yes, you read that correctly. A tobacco company is supporting a cigarette tax increase.

Reynolds appears to have come to the conclusion that Missouri’s smoke tax was not going to stay at 17 cents forever. Amendment 3 is designed in such a way that discount cigarette brands will be taxed at a higher rate than those sold by Reynolds and Philip Morris. (The discount brands and convenience-store owners, in turn, came up with a rival proposal to the raise the cigarette tax by 23 cents, further confusing matters.)

Fast-forward to today. The most recent P-D editorial acknowledges that the paper has held different views on Amendment 3. So why the most recent change of heart? The editorial board says it feels comforted by a legal opinion written by a retired judge.

At the request of Raise Your Hand for Kids, James Dowd, a former judge on the Missouri Court of Appeals, wrote an opinion about Amendment 3’s impact on the protections of stem-cell research that voters approved in 2006. As Dowd sees it, Amendment 3 “in no way abrogates, limits, or repeals” the 2006 constitutional amendment.

Dowd’s opinion, issued in April, is apparently a game-changer for the P-D. The editorial board calls his argument “persuasive” while acknowledging that it is not legally binding.

The editorial made scant mention of R.J. Reynolds’ involvement, referring only to “Big Tobacco’s support” of Amendment 3 in the second-to-last paragraph.

Amendment 3, meanwhile, continues to be opposed by disease research charities (American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, American Heart Association, etc.) as well as Washington U., the Stowers Institute for Medical Research and other groups. “Big Tobacco crafted Amendment 3 for the sole purpose of increasing its profit margins through a slick tax scheme,” We Deserve Better, a group of Amendment 3 opponents, said in a recent news release.

The P-D is taking some ribbing for its shifting views. “It’s like they change their mind depending on who’s talked to them last,” Missouri Scout, a subscription-based Missouri politics blog run by Dave Drebes, joked Monday.

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