Tobacco tax could lead to licensure of retailers

Monday, March 6, 2006

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Missourians need a license to drive, fish or hunt; to cut people's hair, tattoo or embalm them; to practice medicine, sell homes or teach children.

But there's no need for a Missouri license to sell cigarettes and other tobacco products -- a gap in government oversight that makes Missouri a national oddity.

According to the National Cancer Institute, the only other states that don't license tobacco retailers are Wyoming and Minnesota -- and Minnesota allows cities to do the task.

But Missourians soon may have the opportunity to change that, if supporters of a tobacco tax increase succeed in getting enough petition signatures to put their measure on the November ballot.

The proposed constitutional amendment says nothing specifically about licensing tobacco retailers. But it would dedicate a portion of the projected $351 million to $499 million in annual tax revenues to a "comprehensive statewide tobacco control program" consistent with the best practices of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

To actively enforce tobacco laws, the Department of Public Safety has projected that it would need to require licensure of tobacco retailers, and hire an additional 25 enforcement agents and five clerical employees.

"They're not licensed presently, so we don't even have a good idea who is retailing cigarettes and tobacco products to the public," said Pete Lobdell, supervisor of the department's Division of Alcohol and Tobacco Control. "If you don't have them identified, it's hard to keep track of the criminals who are selling tobacco products."

The state agency already licenses about 13,000 alcohol establishments, charging fees ranging from minimal amounts up to $1,000 a year, depending on the type of alcohol and the time and place it is sold.

Enforcing alcohol laws

When enforcing alcohol laws, such as the prohibition against selling to minors, the division can seek to revoke a violator's license -- a pretty powerful tool if that effectively shuts down the business.

But because tobacco retailers aren't licensed, law enforcement officials currently can only take action against the clerk and the underaged buyer -- not the store, Lobdell said.

"We can see where licensing could be advantageous," he said.

But that doesn't mean Lobdell will be campaigning for the ballot measure. He stresses that Republican Gov. Matt Blunt's administration is opposed to any tax increases.

The association for convenience stores, which sell a lot cigarettes, opposes the potential licensing as unnecessary.

"My members comply with all the applicable laws, they pay all the appropriate taxes," said Ron Leone, executive director of the Missouri Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association. "To add another layer of bureaucracy to generate more fees or more full-time state employees is not something we're going to support."

The expansion of government bureaucracy also runs contrary to Blunt's agenda. Since taking office in January 2005, Blunt has reduced the state work force, combined various government functions and sought to privatize others.

Blunt's most publicized cut was to the state Medicaid program, which had 118,558 fewer people on its rolls this January than it did a year earlier.

The tobacco tax initiative would direct most of its revenue toward health care, including a potential expansion of Medicaid services.

The Department of Social Services projects an additional 56,392 pregnant woman, elderly and disabled people would gain state health-care coverage if the ballot initiative passes. It says that would require an additional 231 staff members -- 180 caseworkers, 18 supervisors and 33 clerical employees.

Yet the department isn't promoting the opportunity to provide health care to more people. The additional staff could cost more than $10 million annually, said department spokeswoman Deborah Scott. She, too, stressed that the Blunt administration is opposed to tax increases.

"We're trying to have a more efficient and smaller government, and an increase in the work force as a result of this would not be something we would see as consistent with that approach," Scott said.

The Coalition for a Healthy Future has been touting the health benefits of its proposed tobacco tax increase -- not the expansion of government to provide those benefits.

Audits encouraged

Annual audits required by the initiative should help ensure the money is spent only on programs spelled out in the initiative, said coalition spokeswoman Julie Gibson.

It's only logical that additional health care services will require some additional state employees, she said. But the drafters of the tobacco tax are leaving it up to government officials to interpret certain details, including whether the ballot measure leads to the licensure of tobacco retailers.

"It's really up to them to determine what is the best way to implement it," Gibson said.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Capitol Correspondent David A. Lieb covers Missouri government and politics for The Associated Press.

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