Cheaper Grocery Bills But Higher Prices For Smokes

Right now we pay a seven percent tax on our groceries. The state Senate wants to slash that by two and a half percent this July, and eventually reduce the tax each year until phasing it out completely in 2014. But under the same legislation, the tax on a pack of cigarettes will jump from 18 cents to 75 cents this July.

"It's a dilemma because I like both food and smoking. The food tax, I'd say get rid of the food tax that's better that way," says one shopper.

Others agree, saying people should pay more for their smokes.

"That would help us out cause people, really, they shouldn't be smoking. It's not safe and it's very dangerous for their health."

Cashier Tina Swanier says the timing is perfect for cheaper food taxes.

"We had a lot of losses due to Katrina and I think that would help a lot of people with their groceries. As far as cigarettes, I think you're going to see a lot of people that stop smoking. I think so, and I'm a smoker, so I would quit," Swanier says.

But not everyone wants to give up one for the other.

"I'm a tobacco user myself. I think they ought to just leave our grocery tax alone and leave my tobacco alone. You don't want lower grocery taxes? Well, I do but I don't think one should compensate for another," says one man.

Another says, "I think it's fine whatever you do to help people with their groceries, but as far as cigarette tax, as a smoker I know a lot of them will be uptight about it."

Sen. Billy Hewes III, R-Gulfport, said he wants to cut grocery taxes without raising the cigarette rate.

"A large number of our poor and disenfranchised smoke,'' Hewes said.

Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck proposed what she calls the "tax shift,'' saying it would help all Mississippians who buy groceries.

Gov. Haley Barbour, a fellow Republican, says he opposes increasing taxes on cigarettes or anything else.

"I'm against raising anybody's taxes. Period,'' Barbour told a Friday news conference.

When asked if he would veto the bill, Barbour said, "Let's see if the bill gets over here.''

Only 17 states levy taxes on groceries, and Mississippi has the highest state grocery tax rate in the nation, said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Tommy Robertson, R-Moss Point. He said his information came from state Tax Commission research.

The grocery tax reduction would apply to unprepared food but not to restaurant meals. It wouldn't apply to dry goods or other items that can be bought in grocery stores, such as window cleaner. It also would not apply to alcohol.

The bill now goes to the House.