Tobacco tax curtails use, researcher says

Measure’s foes say smokers turn to the Web and avoid stores.
Tuesday, October 31, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 11:05 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

If Missourians pass Amendment 3, the tax on tobacco products might not be the only thing that increases. The number of nonsmokers in the state could also go up, according to a researcher at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Frank Chaloupka, director of the school’s Institute for Health Research and Policy, recently estimated that if the tax were to increase by the proposed 80 cents, it would lead almost 56,000 of the state’s adult smokers to quit and prevent more than 36,000 premature deaths.

“The evidence is very overwhelming that when you increase the price, people smoke less,” Chaloupka said.

Chaloupka, who presented his findings at MU last week, said it’s often assumed that since smoking is an addiction, people won’t be able to quit just because of a price increase. But, he said, heavy smokers are actually the ones who will be most affected by a jump to 97 cents from 17 cents. If Missouri’s proposed 80-cent increase passes, it will be the state’s first since 1993. “There’s this idea that there’s certain smokers that won’t respond to anything, and they’re the ones that actually respond the most because they have the most money to lose in some sense,” Chaloupka said.

In 2000, the U.S. Surgeon General reported that for every 10 percent increase in cigarette prices, there would be a 3 percent to 5 percent decrease in consumption.

Illinois, which increased its tobacco tax to 98 cents in 2002, has seen cigarette sales drop by nearly 22 percent in the state over the past four years.

Opponents of Missouri’s tax increase argue that sales decreases are an inaccurate measure of whether smoking has declined because some people might turn to the Internet to buy tobacco.

But Kurt Ribisl, a researcher at the University of North Carolina who specializes in tobacco control policy, said that even if a few people buy their cigarettes online, economic studies show consumption still will drop.

“You may see a few percent turn to the Internet, but it should not stand as reason to avoid doing the cigarette tax,” Ribisl said. “Overwhelmingly, there’s a major public health impact of raising the excise tax. There’s absolutely no doubt about this.”

Missourians won’t be the only ones voting on a tobacco tax increase next Tuesday.

Residents of Arizona, South Dakota and California will see similar initiatives on their ballots In Arizona, the tax would increase by 80 cents, boosting the tax on a pack of cigarettes in the state to $1.98. In South Dakota, the proposed increase is $1. California’s initiative would amend the state’s constitution to make its tax the highest in the nation, raising it by $2.60.

All three states have increased their tobacco taxes at least once in the past 10 years.

Since 2000, more than 42 states have increased their tobacco tax, according to the Washington-based Federation of Tax Administrators.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that price increases especially prompt young people who are experimenting with tobacco to either quit or cut down on smoking.

“Young people are more in the process of taking up smoking rather than already addicted, so they’re more susceptible to price changes,” Chaloupka said.

A 2006 Youth Risk Behavior Survey found that Missouri’s teen smoking rate has dropped 20 percent since 1995. If the tax is increased, Chaloupka said it would prevent even more teens from starting smoking.

But Ron Leone, executive director of the Missouri Petroleum and Convenience Store Association, argues that if teen smoking rates are already improving, a tobacco tax increase isn’t necessary.

“The proposition says we can never throw enough money at this problem, but look at the facts and we’re making great strides,” Leone said.

Jim Blaine, a representative of the Committee for a Healthy Future, the group that proposed the tax increase, said he thinks Missouri still has a long way to go.

“We’re 51st in the nation on prevention, and why is tobacco against us on this? Because they know 90 percent of all of their new smokers are under 18, and children are particularly sensitive to price increases,” Blaine said.

Chaloupka said all smokers, regardless of age, income or average consumption will feel the pinch of the price increase.

“When I was in school, one of my best friends at the time who was a smoker thought the research I was doing was nonsense, but a few years later the state where he lived raised their tax and he quit smoking,” Chaloupka said. “Until it actually happens, people think they’re addicted and won’t change, but the reality is that they do. Everyone is impacted on some level.”

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