Want kids to quit? Raise cigarette taxes. It works.
The war on smoking, now five decades old and counting, is one of the nation’s greatest public health success stories — but not for everyone.
As a whole, the country has made amazing progress. In 1964, four in ten adults in the U.S. smoked; today fewer than two in ten do. But some states — Kentucky, South Dakota and Alabama, to name just a few — seem to have missed the message that smoking is deadly.
Their failure is the greatest disappointment in an effort to save lives that was kick-started on Jan. 11, 1964, by the first Surgeon General’s Report on Smoking and Health. Its finding that smoking is a cause of lung cancer and other diseases was major news then. The hazards of smoking, long hidden by a duplicitous industry, were just starting to emerge.
The report led to cigarette warning labels, a ban on TV ads and eventually an anti-smoking movement that shifted the nation’s attitude on smoking. Then, smokers were cool. Today, many are outcasts, banished from restaurants, bars, public buildings and even their own workplaces. Millions of lives have been saved.
The formula for success is no longer guesswork: Adopt tough warning labels, air public service ads, fund smoking cessation programs and impose smoke-free laws. But the surest way to prevent smoking, particularly among price-sensitive teens, is to raise taxes. If you can stop them from smoking, you’ve won the war. Few people start smoking after turning 19.
Long before health advocates discovered this, the tobacco industry knew that high taxes kill smoking as surely as cigarettes kill smokers. “Of all the concerns … taxation … alarms us the most,” says an internal Philip Morris document, turned over in a gaggle of anti-smoking lawsuits in the 1990s.
The real-life evidence of taxing power is overwhelming, too. The 10 states with the lowest adult smoking rates slap an average tax of $2.42 on every pack — three times the average tax in the states with the highest smoking rates.
New York has the highest cigarette tax in the country, at $4.35 per pack, and just 12% of teens smoke — far below the national average of 18%. Compare that with Kentucky, where taxes are low (60 cents), smoking restrictions are weak and the teen smoking rate is double New York’s. Other low-tax states have similarly dismal records.
Foes of high tobacco taxes cling to the tired argument that they fall disproportionately on the poor. True, but so do the deadly effects of smoking — far worse than a tax. The effect of the taxes is amplified further when the revenue is used to fund initiatives that help smokers quit or persuade teens not to start.
Anti-smoking forces have plenty to celebrate this week, having helped avert 8 million premature deaths in the past 50 years. But as long as 3,000 adolescents and teens take their first puff each day, the war is not won.
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