Cigarette Tax Burdens Low-Income, Doesn't Deter Smoking

Higher cigarette taxes may be financially hurting low-income smokers rather than making them more likely to quit, according to a new survey by researchers at RTI International.

The survey, which looked at more than 13,000 people living in New York state, found that lower-income smokers in the state spent nearly a quarter of their household income on cigarettes compared with an average 2 percent spent by wealthier New York smokers.

The national average spent by lower- income smokers - those with a household income under $25,000 - was 14 percent, according to the study, published Thursday in PLoS ONE.

New York carries a considerably higher excise tax than other states - $4.35 per pack compared with the national average of $1.46 per pack.

But even with the higher taxes, the state has not seen a decline in lower-income smokers over the last decade, according to RTI, a non-profit research group that received funding from the New York State Department of Health for the survey.

"Excise taxes are effective in changing smokers' behavior," Matthew Farrelly, chief scientist and senior director of RTI's public health policy research program, and study author, said in a statement. "But not all smokers are able to quit, and low-income smokers are disproportionately burdened by these taxes."

However, previous studies have shown that higher taxes have curbed smoking. According to Dr. John Spangler, professor of family and community medicine at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, the success the excise tax has had in reducing and eliminating smoking in some areas is enough to keep the program going.

More emphasis should be placed on what happens to the tax money, he said.

"What must be done, in the name for fairness, is to use the 'excessive taxation' which the poor pay to help them stop smoking," said Spangler.

The high cost of medications or other smoking cessation tools is one of the greatest barriers of quitting for those who are thinking about it, said Spangler. Spangler suggested that the tax money could be used to distribute low-cost or free smoking cessation medication, or to amp up tobacco-prevention programs in lower income neighborhoods, he said.

The researchers agreed, saying that the money spent should filter back into the lower-income community.

"Dedicating some of the revenue from cigarette excise taxes for targeted programs that help low-income smokers quit may help alleviate the regressivity of cigarette excise taxes," the authors wrote.