"Raising the cigarette tax is the simplest, fastest way to reduce smoking," says Eric Lindbloom, director for policy research at the Campaign for Tobacco-free Kids. "There's an immediate response. People cut back more, they quit more, they call quit lines and buy nicotine-replacement therapy more. Every indicator shows that as the price increases you end up with fewer people smoking."
But the price of cigarettes themselves isn't the only cost of smoking. Delaware--which sells the most cigarettes per capita out of any state--also spends $284 million on smoking-related health costs per year, and smoking-caused productivity losses cost the state $304 million per year. It's even harder to calculate costs like carpet cleaning, lost home value and even missed job opportunities--some employers now won't hire smokers.
Even though most smokers know the proven health risks and long-term costs of smoking, it often takes a hike in the price of a pack to bring home the negative consequences of the habit.
Terry Pechacek, associate director for science at the CDC's Office for Smoking and Health, says that the immediacy of higher smoking costs often pushes people toward breaking the chains of addiction.
"It places a convenience cost," says Pechacek. "When you have changes in social norms, and then a price increase that you notice each time you buy a pack of cigarettes, it's a very persistent and inescapable cost that's been building on other factors. It's kind of that tipping point that brings all those other behavioral costs together."
What's more, there's a good chance smokers may be spending more on their habits.
"States pass their cigarette tax increases during budgetary crises because they need money and it's a good way to get it," says Lindbloom. "The wonderful advantage is not only do they get money, but they lower state costs and reduce smoking. It's also very popular, unlike other tax increases that make people scream."
But the CDC's Pechacek warns that while taxing smokers is effective for governments and cuts smoking rates, states must go further than taxation.
"Taxes have gone up dramatically over the last four to five years, but the level of service funding for tobacco control programs, quit lines and coverage for medication have gone up very little or not at all," he says.
He adds that, ironically, downturns are among the hardest times for many to quit.
"Smoking is one of the stress-reducing crutches," he says. "During these economic times of stress, we need to help lower-income smokers quit because they may smoke as much or more."