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New Study Finds New York's High Cigarette Tax Has Dramatically Reduced Smoking, But State Must Do More to Help Low-Income Smokers Quit

Statement of Danny McGoldrick, Vice President for Research, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids
September 20, 2012

WASHINGTON, DC (September 20, 2012) – A new study published in the journal PLoS One confirms that New York’s high cigarette tax has helped the state dramatically reduce smoking far faster and to far lower levels than the nation as a whole. The study also finds that smoking rates remain higher among low-income New Yorkers, indicating the need to do more to help low-income smokers quit.

New York’s cigarette tax of $4.35 per pack, the highest in the nation, has helped reduce both adult and youth smoking by more than twice as much as the nation as a whole. While the study’s numbers do not show a decline in smoking among low-income New Yorkers during the period covered by the study, other studies do show that raising cigarette taxes reduces smoking among low-income populations. In addition, this study shows that low-income New Yorkers smoke at much lower rates than their national counterparts, and disparities in smoking between income groups are smaller in New York than nationally.

There is no question that New York’s efforts to reduce smoking have been highly successful:

  • From 2003 to 2010 (the period examined in the study), New York reduced adult smoking by 28 percent, from 21.6 percent to 15.5 percent who currently smoke. In contrast, the national smoking rate fell by only 11 percent, from 21.6 percent to 19.3 percent.
  • From 2003 to 2011, New York reduced high school smoking by 38 percent, from 20.2 percent to 12.5 percent who currently smoke. In contrast, the national high school smoking rate declined by 17 percent, from 21.9 percent to 18.1 percent.
  • The study also finds that low-income New Yorkers smoke at much lower rates than their national counterparts. In New York, smoking rates ranged from 10.1 percent for those making more than $60,000 annually to 24.3 percent for those making less than $30,000. Nationally, smoking rates ranged from 12.2 percent for the high income group to 33.7 percent for the low-income group.

New York has succeeded by implementing scientifically proven strategies, including the high cigarette tax, a comprehensive smoke-free air law and effective tobacco prevention and cessation programs. The state’s smoking declines translate into significant health and financial gains. New York has reduced the number of adult smokers by 664,000, prevented 305,000 kids from becoming smokers, prevented 265,000 smoking-caused deaths and saved $11.6 billion in long-term tobacco-related health care costs.

It is important to note that a number of factors influence smoking rates among different groups. For example, targeted tobacco company marketing, including price discounting, influences tobacco use, and we know that tobacco companies target low-income consumers. This study did not isolate the impact of increased price on smoking in New York from these other factors. Thus, while the study’s numbers do not show a decline in smoking among low-income New Yorkers, that does NOT mean that smoking rates are not lower than they would have been without the tax increases during that time period, as other factors like industry marketing could have offset the impact of the tax.

This study also finds that cigarette tax evasion, such as purchasing untaxed cigarettes on Indian reservations or contraband cigarettes, is a serious problem in New York. Cigarette tax evasion is both a public health problem that undermines efforts to reduce smoking with higher cigarette prices and a financial problem that costs the state significant revenue.

New York should take additional actions to further reduce tobacco use:

  • New York should increase overall funding for its tobacco prevention and cessation program, which has been cut in half in recent years, and provide more targeted assistance to help low-income smokers quit. It is critical to both provide and promote smoking cessation services to low-income smokers.

  • There also needs to be a strong push to reduce tax evasion. Both the state and New York City recently have increased enforcement actions to collect tobacco taxes and crack down on contraband sales. They must continue and step up these efforts.

Tobacco companies often argue that tobacco taxes are regressive. What’s truly regressive is smoking itself. In large part because of the tobacco industry’s targeted marketing, low-income populations smoke at higher rates and suffer disproportionately from smoking-caused disease, deaths and costs. It also means that low-income communities can benefit the most from effective efforts to prevent and reduce tobacco use.