Editorial: Unacceptable poison pill in tobacco tax initiative

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Editorial: Unacceptable poison pill in tobacco tax initiative

By the Editorial Board 

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. We’re talking about a ballot initiative that aimed to raise $305 million a year for children’s health by hiking the state tobacco tax.

Had the initiative’s language stopped there, we’d be 100 percent behind it today, as we were when we endorsed it in February. But the measure contains a clause with unacceptable long-term implications for important scientific research.

The group Raise Your Hands for Kids touted this initiative as a way to raise money for young children by increasing the state’s cigarette tax, the lowest in the nation, from 17 cents to 77 cents a pack. The poisonous part involves language stipulating the new tax revenue cannot be used for abortions, abortion services or for “human cloning or research, clinical trials, or therapies or cures using human embryonic stem-cells.”

The stem-cell language has sent Missouri Cures, a coalition that successfully campaigned for a constitutional amendment protecting stem-cell research in 2006, running from this initiative. Likewise, Washington University has withdrawn support and is now lobbying against it.

State Sen. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur, is another former supporter who has bolted. Having previously raised funds for the campaign, she is now writing donors to explain her decision to withdraw support and asking them to do the same.

Schupp says the initiative was “hijacked” and that it “threw a bone to groups against stem-cell research and anti-abortion proponents.”

Linda Rallo, executive director of Raise Your Hands for Kids, says her group inserted the language because of a Washington University report in 2013 about why a campaign the year before to raise the state’s tobacco tax had failed. The report suggested care should be taken to mitigate opposition by anti-abortion groups.

But the university said in a statement that “inferring that strong anti-research language should be included in future initiatives is a complete overreach of the authors’ intentions.”

The real shame is that children and needy families could lose access to an estimated $28 million a year from the tax, which would have gone for screenings, preventive health care and other services. The sharply higher tax would be a big incentive for smokers to quit, and some of the money from it was slated for smoking cessation.

Rallo insists the stem-cell and abortion language was added only to make it “crystal clear” that the taxes raised could be used solely for children and smoking cessation. She says objections were raised too late for her to take the language out of the proposal.

She accused opponents of not wanting to help kids but did not acknowledge her own role in alienating them — and, unfortunately, this newspaper.