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Do higher cigarette taxes lead to lower smoking rates?

Posted at 1:39 PM, Mar 06, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-06 13:39:16-05

Smoking has been a lifelong habit for Pete Quinto.

“Since I was 21,” he said. “I’m 53.”

He lives in New Jersey, a state where the tax on cigarettes is just under $3 a pack, but it could be higher.

“I know New York’s pretty high,” Quinto said.

New Jersey may soon be, as well. The governor is proposing a state cigarette tax of $4.35 a pack, placing it on par with New York and Connecticut as one of the highest cigarette taxes in the nation.

The very highest? Washington D.C., at $4.50 a pack.

Yet, cigarette taxes vary wildly across the country. The lowest is in Missouri: a mere 17 cents per pack. Others include 30 cents in Virginia, 84 cents in Colorado and $1.33 in Florida.

“Raising taxes is the quickest way to reduce tobacco, particularly among young people and the poor, whom the tobacco industry preys,” said Matthew Myers, who heads up The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

He said there is a direct link between higher cigarette taxes and lower smoking rates.

“The advantage of tobacco taxes is they reduce tobacco use more effectively, more efficiently and more predictably than any other single tactic, while also raising revenue for government,” Myers said.

Yet, critics have pointed out that lower-income smokers get hit the hardest by taxes like these and a U.S. Surgeon General report earlier this year, found they have the least access to programs to help them quit.

Still, at least one academic study, “Tax Burden on Tobacco,” shows the connection between higher taxes and lower smoking rates. It looked at the price of cigarettes and their sales from 1970 to 2017.

The findings? The higher the cigarette price, the fewer packs sold.

“In an ideal world we would be down to zero,” Myers said. “We’re a long way from there.

Back in New Jersey, Pete Quinto said if the tax goes up as much as proposed, he might finally quit.

“Most definitely,” he said. “I’m not paying all that money.”

New Jersey has not raised its cigarette sales tax in a decade. The proposal would raise an extra $218 million a year in the state.