Does Imposing Cigarette Taxes Encourage Better Behavior?

For about ten years of my life, I was a proud and defiant smoker. I enjoyed a good cigarette at lunch time and I will not lie: I still occasionally smell something attractive – if not overly pleasant – about cigarette smoke as I pass through the doors of the local malls and restaurants. Through most of this time, I was working at jobs that paid considerably less than I currently make. Indeed, these entry-level jobs in the IT world paid somewhat less than a living wage for a single person.

But at no time did I ever seriously consider quitting my habit for financial reasons. I’d bum smokes off people; I’d complain about the prices; I’d sit in my livingroom and climb the walls till pay day. But I never once said, “cigarette prices are too high! I’m quitting.” Tut-tut if you must, but I suspect that this is also the case with many other current and former smokers.

Yet it is precisely this fiction that is trotted out every time the cigarette tax goes up in New York or nationally: raising taxes on cigarettes is a disincentive to smoking them. My evidence thus presented is purely anecdotal and colored by my personal opinion of the matter, but I recently decided to go in search of more tangible evidence to suggest the real effect of taxation on populations of smokers. The thought came to mind when I once again heard about the “Fat VAT” on sugary drinks proposed on both the New York State and national levels.

The results of my initial research are, well, not terribly supportive of that or really any other hypothesis, I’m afraid. The numbers have been adjusted as seemed fair by comparing the taxes not on their own, but rather as a percent of income. In this way, we get a truer sense of what the relative “weight” of a cigarette tax actually is in each state.

New York is helpfully (depending on your point of view) at the very top of the most-taxed stogie states in the Union. Yet our smoking population, while certainly much lower than many other states, is not where you might expect it to be if the hypothesis were true. Meanwhile, the next most taxed state by income, Rhode Island is about as near to the top of the list of smokin’est states as we are to the bottom of the list. And all down the line, there is nothing approaching a consistent pattern.

To be sure, this data is at best evidence rather than proof of anything conclusive. There are a number of variables not factored in, such as cultural and historic factors. We may certainly say that the comparing the various states on cultural levels is indeed comparing apples to oranges. What we might really prefer – and what I have as yet had difficulty locating – is data in a specific state, organized by year, so we can see the percent change in taxes relative to the percent change in smokers.

But even if we allow these faults, certainly one would expect at least some smattering of – some semblance of – a pattern. The scatter chart on the second tab shows this not to be the case – if anything, a reverse trend could be imagined from the data.

By Tommy Belknap

Owner, developer, editor of DragonFlyEye.Net, Tom Belknap is also a freelance journalist for The 585 lifestyle magazine. He lives in the Rochester area with his wife and son.

3 replies on “Does Imposing Cigarette Taxes Encourage Better Behavior?”

As a smoker (now living in state with no sales tax, but paying federal taxes on them) I have to mostly agree. I think most people quit not for financial reasons but when they realize they prefer being healthy or replace smoking with a healthy habit, i.e., walking, running, etc. I hate to say it, but as ciggies have gone up in price, I've turned to light cigars, which are megacheap ($2 for 20 in a pack). I also wonder what the bootleg market is in smokes now in N.Y. that they've been taxed into the stratosphere.
Smokers, from what I can tell, are basically lower-class (like me) now, unorganized and rarely, if ever, vote on smoking as an issue. And I've met many who begrudgingly accepted the ban on smoking in bars, which were the last bastion of public smoking for many. I've seen WW II and Korean War vets huddled outside their halls, smoking, rather than bemoaning the fact they were almost killed for a country that now torments them by making them freeze off their retired selves instead of enjoying a smoke inside during their last days on earth. It's a passive, docile population that is unwilling to protest, so it can be easily taxed to death and treated like cattle. Unless it dies first. From smoking. Just another whimper of a dying republic filled with citizens who wouldn't recognize liberty if it blew smoke in their face.

I think the problem for smokers is largely cultural: that smoking inside is illegal has a lot less to do with whether or not the government has imposed the prohibition and more to do with the fact that the majority of Americans tut-tut smoking and treat smokers like pariahs. I will never forget – if I live to be 100 – the January day that the new ban on smoking in restaurants took effect in NYS. I didn’t know anything about it, and just sat at Arby’s on my half-hour lunch break from back-breaking labor as a machinist, taking a moment to enjoy a post-lunch ciggie. In walks some uptight fat chick from some office somewhere who immediately starts sniffing the air like her neighbor’s dog to a shit in her house, going “Smoking!! Someone’s smoking in here!!!” The poor chick working at Arby’s (again, thankless job getting paid probably a third or less of this tight-ass’s salary) having to apologetically ask me to put the smoke out.

I don’t begrudge people their healthy habits: I’m among the converted. But there’s a difference between actively, positively encouraging positive behavior and stigmatizing or worse in the case of our government, proudly raping those whose habits we disagree with.

Oh, I totally agree. I don't even bother asking people if I should smoke around them anymore, I just say, "I'm going off to have a smoke." And STILL get lectured!
I would let any place that catered to citizens 18 and over purchase a smoking license (cuz you know the politicians gotta get their green) yearly and allow it that way. Potential employees would be told that they would be exposed to smoke. My experience is about half the folks in the service industry opposed the bans, while others welcomed it because they didn't like smoke or wanted to quit.
I realize a lot of people, especially in the health business, would be horrified by my proposal (although a number support legalizing smoking marijuana, so go figure!). I'm very much a live and let live person on most issues, but that seems to be a rapidly dying mode of being. So smoke 'em while you got'em!

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