Boosting taxes on cigarettes is an effective way to cut smoking rates among adults and, even more, among those college-age and younger, along with tobacco-related disease and death. A case in point is Maryland, where the incidence of smoking fell by a third from 1998 to 2010, a period during which the state more than quintupled its cigarette tax.
By the same token, states that have allowed cigarette levies to remain low, under the sway of Big Tobacco or anti-tax sentiment, generally suffer from higher smoking rates and the resulting impact on public health. Virginia's cigarette tax is second-lowest in the nation, after Missouri's; it is an example of a state that extends its smokers a license to kill themselves.
Pleased with the results in Maryland, anti-tobacco advocates want to build on their success. On the merits, they have an easy case to make. After the state doubled its levy in 2008, to $2 per pack, cigarette sales dropped sharply. Now advocates want to raise the per pack tax again, to $3. Lawmakers should take note.
Higher taxes are particularly effective in cutting tobacco use among younger smokers, whose habits are less entrenched and who are more sensitive to price. As a direct result of the 2008 tax increase, youth smoking rates plummeted by almost a third in two years. In 2009, just 12 percent of Maryland youths were smokers, compared with a national rate of almost 20 percent.
And while adult smokers are somewhat less sensitive to price increases, Maryland's 2008 tax hike helped cut the number of adult smokers by about 13 percent.
Complacency is the wrong course of action. Anti-tobacco advocates point out that following the big drop after 2008, smoking rates in Maryland have started to inch up again over the past few years. That coincides with an 80 percent cut in spending on the state's main anti-smoking program, which aims to help people to quit or not start in the first place. Despite its relatively high tax rate on cigarettes, Maryland ranks just 34th nationally among the states in spending on its anti-smoking program.
Each of the three increases in Maryland's cigarette tax over the past dozen years has been followed immediately by a sharp drop in sales. True, some Maryland smokers may simply cross the border to buy their cartons in low-tax Virginia. But more have quit or cut back, as state-by-state smoking rates suggest.
The tobacco lobby remains strong enough to push back against further increases. In Annapolis, a bill this year to raise the state's per-pack tax to $3 died in committee. A similar effort in the legislative session starting in January may suffer the same fate.
Anti-smoking advocates are focusing their efforts on the next year or two in the legislative calendar. They should be helped both by the counter-example of Virginia and by the facts.