Everyone hates taxes, right? Well, apparently not all taxes, all the time — a new poll of 500 voters sponsored by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids found that a staggering 70 percent favored raising taxes on cigarettes by nearly a dollar per pack. It’s the kind of tax that people like; since only 17 percent or so of adults smoke, it’s largely happening to someone else.
The increase, the campaign’s advocacy director Kevin O’Flaherty claims, would be a “no-brainer.” People support it, which is vanishingly rare for a tax, it would raise upward of $50 million for the state, and it would promote public health and encourage people to quit smoking. Since health care costs are always rising, and since so many diseases can be tied to smoking, this seems like the kind of public policy that is a winner for everyone. How rare.
Even better, this is one of those policies that might have a real, measurable impact. Numerous studies suggest that the higher the tax gets, the more people who are no longer able to afford cigarettes will either be tempted or forced to quit. Right now, Connecticut ranks third in the nation when it comes to taxes on a pack of cigarettes; our tax of $3.40 per pack trails only Rhode Island’s $3.50 and New York’s $4.35. The data shows a lower percentage of smokers here than the national average, and a slightly higher-than-average number of adults who have attempted to quit. In fact, Connecticut does better than the national average on just about every smoking measure the CDC recorded.
And yet, I’m not entirely comfortable with cranking up the tax on cigarettes for a couple of reasons. One is that it seems like we’re legislating morality alongside public health. The so-called “sin taxes” bump the price of items the government wants people to use less of, like cigarettes and alcohol, upward in the hope that economics will wean people off of them when education campaigns fail. The name “sin tax” is revealing. Smoking and drinking can be public health issues in many cases, in that there are situations where the risk to others is high. This is why smoking is banned in public buildings and restaurants in Connecticut, and rightly so. However, there are also situations where the risk is primarily to the user. Back during the days when I smoked (sigh, college) I’d usually wander somewhere far away from everyone else to have a cigarette or two. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t a public health menace back then, unless you count the secondhand smoke risk to mosquitoes and the occasional deer. And yet, I paid the tax on every pack.
I also paid that extra money per pack because, well, I had to have those cigarettes. Addiction is like that. Whenever I went without for a little while, I’d get awful cravings and have to find some way to either buy more or bum them off my friends. It’s easy to demonize smokers and applaud when the state taxes them. But we shouldn’t forget that many of them struggle with addiction, and that many have tried to quit and failed. I quit well over a decade ago, and I still get cravings. I wasn’t even a heavy smoker! That’s how powerful this stuff is, and why I shake my head when the state makes increasing amounts of money off of addicts while claiming it’s all just trying to help them break the habit.
Look, it’s crystal clear that cigarettes are bad for you, and bad for anyone standing near you when you smoke one. I also am aware that states tackle issues of morality in legislation all the time. Does taxing, say, soda count? What about gasoline? Gambling? Sex work? There are moral arguments to make for taxing or banning each of these, some of them quite compelling. But when the state gets into the habit of enacting restrictions in the name of morality, the question becomes: whose morality? And where does that lead if we’re not careful?
The tax increase seems dead for now, though I’m sure it’ll go up again soon. Public education campaigns, regulation of tobacco advertising, and changing social mores will continue to drive the number of smokers down, especially as fewer and fewer young people start smoking. This is a welcome shift. It would be better if our public health policy was more this kind of carrot, and less the stick.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.