The below letter-to-the-editor was written by You're the Cure advocate Tina Lakey and originally published by Yall Politics staff on February 22, 2019 at YallPolitics.com.
By: Tina Lakey
Mississippi is our home. For me, it is where I grew up and reared a family. It’s also where I have worked to improve the business climate for 40+ years. When given the chance to help ensure my family and our community are happy and healthy in a Mississippi where we are proud to be the South’s warmest welcome, I am going to stand up and take action to help us become one of the South’s healthiest states.
Sadly, Tobacco remains the #1 cause of preventable death in our state. Cigarettes are cheap and easy to find. That’s a problem.
While other states have raised their cigarette taxes, boosting state health and revenue, Mississippi’s cigarette tax has remained the same for 10 years and is one of the lowest in the United States at 68 cents. Cigarette companies love this, as they are targeting our most vulnerable citizens — people who could be allocating hard-earned money to everyday necessities instead of cheap packs of cigarettes.
Mississippi, a state already known for poor health, is holding itself back even more by making cigarette smoking easy for so many adults and ensuring a new wave of youth smokers begins a lifetime of addiction. This does not have to be the case. We CAN do something to fix this, and it begins by raising the cigarette tax by $1.50 per pack. The overwhelming majority of Mississippians would support such a move.
Recently, inside the Mississippi State Capitol, supporters from more than 40 diverse organizations calling for an increase in the state cigarette tax announced that more than 70 percent of voters in the state support the measure. The study, commissioned by the Invest in a Healthier Future Coalition, confirms what most of us already hear in conversations — there is solid support for a tobacco tax increase across party lines. In total, 69 percent of independents, 71 percent of Republicans and 80 percent of Democrats are in favor. The poll even found the majority of smokers in Mississippi support the $1.50 per pack increase.
This idea gained traction last year during session, and as a Mississippi business owner, I was glad to see lawmakers on both sides of the aisle considering the policy. The health repercussions from cigarettes seep into our offices and workspaces. My employees who smoke wish they didn’t, but their addiction began when they were too young and already too far in — the seeds of addiction had been placed before they were 21. More than 15 percent of high school students in Mississippi smoke. I care about my future employee pool. When it comes to hiring graduates, I want hard-working and healthy individuals — the more we can do to ensure Mississippi has a healthy workforce, the better, to grow our economy and secure our state’s vitality.
Even if you have employees or coworkers who have spent years or decades smoking, when a person quits, the health benefits are almost immediate. In just 20 minutes after quitting, your blood circulation and lung function increases, according to the American Cancer Society. I want to see my employees and coworkers reaching their potential and leading healthy and happy lives, not declining before my eyes.
An increase in the state cigarette tax means young people and those with lower incomes will be less likely to purchase toxic products. This is the right thing to do to protect their health. Employers can help employees during the process of quitting by sharing encouragement and cessation resources. The higher tax also means fewer new smokers.
An increase in the state cigarette tax by $1.50 per pack could also support our State General Fund, saving nearly 1 billion dollars in healthcare costs. That’s positive “change” in addition to the improvements to health.
This is a positive way to protect our families, increase worker productivity and draw businesses to our state. The Mississippi Legislature will consider this significant increase during the legislative session, and we should ask our lawmakers to show bold leadership and support this life-saving increase. This is about our future and the Mississippi we will leave behind for those we love.
I hope more Mississippi business leaders join me in support of this policy to help ensure a healthy workforce and protect our next generation. If you support this measure, join me, and visit www.investMS.org.
Tina Lakey is the former District Director of CenterPoint Energy in Mississippi. She is now retired and lives in Madison, Mississippi.