DAVID GREENE, HOST:
The state of Missouri has the lowest taxes on cigarettes in the country, just 17 cents a pack. On Election Day, Missouri voters will decide on a constitutional amendment to increase the tax. And here's the interesting twist, Big Tobacco supports the tax hike on smokers. Smaller tobacco companies and health groups oppose it. Here's Alex Smith from member station KCUR in Kansas City.
ALEX SMITH, BYLINE: A small increase on the state's low tobacco tax seemed like an easy way to fund early childhood education, says Linda Rallo. So she and her supporters decided to try a petition to create a tax through a ballot measure. Their polling showed voters might be OK with an additional 60 cents a pack. Then they reached out to health groups and hit a wall.
LINDA RALLO: We talked to them so many times, and we wanted to partner with them. We offer them higher amounts, you know, and it just - it was a very frustrating experience.
SMITH: Rallo's tax, they said, is too small to make smokers actually quit, so talks with the health groups broke down.
RALLO: It was basically it's my way or the highway. So we took the highway, and, you know, when you're going down the highway, you might pick up an interesting, you know, companion.
SMITH: That interesting companion is tobacco giant R.J. Reynolds. The company approached her to offer its help and told NPR in a written statement that its support of Amendment 3 marks the first time Reynolds has ever supported a cigarette tax. But this pits Reynolds against smaller manufacturers known as little tobacco. Big tobacco companies have to pay the state a special fee that small companies don't, so smaller producers can undercut, Rallo says.
RALLO: You have such a low price on cigarettes, such a discount price, that it's very easy for low-income people to buy cigarettes.
SMITH: The amendment creates an extra tax on those smaller brands that would stop them from being able to sell at bargain prices, so little tobacco is firing back. They've thrown their weight behind another ballot measure that would create a smaller tax - 23 cents a pack - on all brands, so they'd still be cheaper than big tobacco cigarettes. This is all pretty confusing for voters, says Doug Luke, a tobacco researcher at Washington University.
DOUG LUKE: They see multiple bills on the ballot. They hear that public health groups are arguing about this. And even the tobacco industry is fighting itself, which is very unusual.
SMITH: Many health groups have joined fiscal conservatives in opposing Amendment 3. They were creating such a small tax now might eliminate the chance of a future tax that would really make people quit, says Luke.
LUKE: There is a sense here of at some point, we need to get something passed. But that's not how you do sound policy.
SMITH: Meanwhile, R.J. Reynolds has spent more than $12 million on a measure that would more than quadruple the tax on its cigarettes in Missouri. For NPR News, I'm Alex Smith in Kansas City.
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GREENE: And Alex's story was part of a reporting partnership with NPR, KCUR and Kaiser Health News.
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