Bill designed to reduce underage smoking faces fight
JEFFERSON CITY - A feud between the major tobacco companies and a discount cigarette store chain is likely to doom an already embattled bill designed to reduce underage smoking.
Unless the logjam about cheap cigarettes is resolved today - the last day of the legislative session - the House-approved bill will not even be voted on in the Senate.
Even if that unrelated issue is put to rest, the bill still contains an amendment that makes enforcement of the proposed - and current - underage smoking laws nearly impossible.
The major standoff concerns brand name cigarettes manufactured for overseas sales but resold back in the United States. Because the cigarettes are intended for export, they are not subject to price increases under the national tobacco settlement. Those same cigarettes can cost about $1 less per pack.
Big tobacco companies say the growing "gray market" will eat into their profits and jeopardize Missouri's $6.7 billion share of the tobacco settlement that lawmakers want to use for health care and anti-smoking programs. The House-approved bill bans the sale of "gray market" cigarettes.
Dirt Cheap Cigarettes and Beer and other convenience store owners counter that the major tobacco companies are trying to shut them out of business.
The measure also would close a loophole that bans minors from buying tobacco - but doesn't prohibit them from possessing it. Under the bill, kids caught smoking would have to attend a smoking cessation course or perform community service in a place where they can see the effects of smoking, like a hospital. Several local governments have adopted similar rules.
"It's kind of crazy we don't have that already," said Lynne Schlosser, a lobbyist with the American Cancer Society.
However, lawmakers want to prevent minors from going undercover to catch stores that sell tobacco to people under 18. Some legislators worried about the safety of teen-agers, and others felt the stings entrapped store clerks.
Supporters of the stings say there is no other enforcement method.
Missouri is likely to lose $9.6 million a year in federal funds for substance abuse treatment because the federal government ties the funding to a drop in illegal tobacco sales to minors. Such stings help the government gauge the compliance rate.
Lawmakers added $1.2 million in next year's budget to expand the stings - but they forbid teens from going undercover. Gov. Mel Carnahan still could veto the portion of the spending measure that bans minors from participating in stings. A Carnahan spokesman said the governor is reviewing the bill.