As leaders of two of Missouri's largest public education systems, more than 90,000 students and their parents place their trust in us. At first blush, our jobs are pretty straightforward: to grow and shape young, eager minds to become tomorrow's leaders.
The reality, though, is much different—and much more complex.
As education leaders, our job is to cultivate the student as a whole, to help each one grow and thrive personally, and to care for their health and safety so one day their contributions can benefit all of society. The problem is education doesn't exist in a vacuum, and it doesn't easily overcome sometimes-negative outside influences.
Case in point: More than 30 percent of Columbia Public Schools students admit to smoking all or part of a cigarette—and more than 17 percent of those students smoke at least half a pack a day, according to a 2010 Columbia Public Schools survey. About 6,000 students on University of Missouri System campuses smoke cigarettes every day.
These numbers are really microcosms of Missouri as a whole. Our state has the 11th-highest smoking rate and the 39th-lowest life expectancy in the country. Nearly 9,000 Missouri kids start smoking each year.
Why? Probably lots of reasons, but at the top of our list is the low cost of cigarettes, attributable in large part to low taxes. In fact, Missouri has the lowest tobacco tax in the nation at 17 cents a pack. The national average is $1.49. This puts the price of cigarettes and tobacco products easily within reach of most teens' purchasing power.
A new approach will soon be before voters.
Proposition B would help address Missouri's health, smoking and school funding problems through a 73-cent tax increase on cigarettes and other tobacco products.
Increasing the price of cigarettes and tobacco products is a proven way to decrease smoking rates, especially in children. National data indicate that for every 10 percent increase in cigarette taxes, cigarette consumption among the general population declines 4 percent. And studies show youths are three times more sensitive to price than adults—and because 90 percent of smokers start smoking in their teen years, higher taxes can sharply reduce smoking rates in the long run.
In short, experts estimate this proposed tax increase would prevent 40,100 kids from becoming addicted adult smokers and cause 33,000 adult smokers to quit.
What's the big deal with smoking, some might wonder. The health implications should be obvious, but for the record, smoking leads to five times higher mortality rates in the United States as well as higher rates of heart and lung disease, stroke and cancer. And a new study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry also indicates smoking is associated with cognitive declines starting in midlife that are similar to 10 years of aging.
Plus, the health care costs associated with smoking are astronomical. Missouri spends $2.13 billion on health care costs directly related to smoking each year. More than half of this money could be saved from declines in youth and adult smoking if Proposition B passes.
Educators do their best to persuade kids not to smoke. On our University of Missouri System campuses, we have Wellness Centers that offer free smoking cessation programs and products. In our elementary, middle and high schools, we hold assemblies about the health effects of smoking, equip our guidance counselors with information they can use to influence students not to smoke and even teach the dangers of smoking in our health and science classes.
We're seeing success through these efforts, but more is needed. When 25 percent of K-12 students indicate they feel it is not wrong at all—or only slightly wrong—to smoke, we face an uphill battle.
We already know the counterargument: Missouri is averse to new taxes. But it also is important to know the facts in this particular case. Proposition B would bring the new tax total for cigarettes and tobacco products to 90 cents—still well below the national average of $1.49 per pack and keeping Missouri in the bottom half of state tobacco taxes. Illinois just raised its cigarette tax by $1 more than is being proposed in Missouri.
It's also worth noting that, in addition to stemming the number of youths who smoke, proceeds from the increased cigarette tax would be used for smoking prevention and cessation programs statewide, and would be allocated for elementary and secondary education classrooms to help prevent staff reductions and increased classroom size. Missouri colleges and universities also would benefit from funds used to support education opportunities for students and future caregivers.
It has been a tough lesson for us to learn, but education alone is not eliminating smoking among our students. We in the education business know something more needs to be done. When heading to the polls in November, we ask that you, too, think about the health and well-being of our students.
Tim Wolfe, President—University of Missouri System
Chris Belcher, Superintendent—Columbia Public Schools