Stateline Story

New Research Rekindles Cigarette Tax Debate

  • April 30, 2001
  • By Mary Guiden

Remember that weekly allowance you had as a kid? With the spare change you got from a job or from your parents, you could buy the latest music, get some stylish new clothes or even go out to eat with your friends. Would you use the money to buy cigarettes? Maybe, if the price was within your reach.

With 3,000 kids in the U.S. who become regular smokers each day, anti-tobacco groups want state legislators to up the cigarette tax so that smoking is soon out of the reach of kids and teens. All 50 states now impose such taxes, which range from 2.5 cents per pack in Virginia to a high of $1.11 per pack in New York.

Many states haven't raised taxes in years. Tennessee hasn't altered its 13 cents per pack rate since 1969 and Alabama has held steady at 16.5 cents since 1984. In Virginia, where Gov. James Gilmore is caught up in a budget feud with the Legislature over a campaigned-promised car tax cut, officials haven't looked at the tax since 1966. Anti-smoking advocates say a 50 cents per pack tax would rake in $309 million more in revenue in one year.

Tobacco manufacturers say that taxing the product is unfair to adults who choose to smoke. In addition, industry officials say there's no related reduction in youth smoking just because of a price increase.

"That's not to say price isn't a factor [in whether kids smoke], but it unfairly burdens adult smokers. The best way to combat youth smoking is to use a comprehensive approach, including media campaigns and school programs, that addresses the reasons why kids start to smoke," says Philip Morris spokesman Tom Ryan.

Researchers from the universities of Illinois and Michigan, however, say price does make a difference--and they're touting the first long-term study of the issue as solid proof. More specifically, results from an April 24 report show that a 10 percent increase in the price of cigarettes will decrease the likelihood of an adolescent starting to smoke by up to 10 percent.Illinois economics professor Frank Chaloupka, one of the study's authors, says while other analyses have shown a relationship between price and consumption, "this is the first to definitely show how raising cigarette prices will decrease youth smoking initiation.... The findings make clear that if you want to keep kids from smoking then raise excise taxes."

A number of states are pushing for cigarette tax increases in current sessions, including Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Nebraska and Washington.

In the New England states, a group known as the Alliance for a Healthy New England is pushing for an increase of at least 50 cents per pack in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Vermont. The alliance--which includes officials from the American Cancer Society and the New England Council of State Medical Societies--wants revenues generated by the tax increase to go to tobacco control and health programs.

How successful has the effort been so far? Legislation is pending in five states and in Vermont, Gov. Howard Dean proposed a 67 cent tax increase, which would bring the state in line with New York at $1.11 per pack. "Having that kind of leadership in New England has made a big difference," says Lori Fresina of Smoke Free New England, one of the alliance partners.

Fresina says the group is in a unique position to raise taxes without putting other states in the region at an economic disadvantage. To the north, Canada already has higher tobacco taxes and to the west, New York's rate is 35 cents higher than the highest tax in New England.

Alliance members realize they can't get all the states to support the increase this year, given tight budgets and a serious education-funding crisis in New Hampshire. They have thus designed a three-year campaign and hope for starters they'll get tax increases in both Massachusetts and Vermont this year.

"Maine could do it as well. In Connecticut, which has one of the worst records on anti-smoking programs in the country, the public health committee took the lead on supporting the legislation and gave it a favorable report. Whether or not it passes remains to be seen," says Fresina.

State Tobacco Tax Rates

State Cigarette Tax (Cents Per Pack) Ranking (1 = highest) Date Of Last Tax Increase
Alabama 16.5 42 July 1, 1984
Alaska 100 2 October 1, 1997
Arizona 58 14 November 29, 1994
Arkansas 31.5 28 July 1, 1993
California 87 4 January 1, 1999
Colorado 20 36 July 1, 1986
Connecticut 50 18 July 1, 1994
Delaware 24 31 January 1, 1991
Florida 33.9 26 July 1, 1990
Georgia 12 45 April 1, 1971
Hawaii 100 2 July 1, 1998
Idaho 28 30 July 1, 1994
Illinois 58 14 December 16, 1997
Indiana 15.5 43 July 1, 1987
Iowa 36 23 June 1, 1991
Kansas 24 31 October 1, 1985
Kentucky 3 49 July 1, 1970
Louisiana 20 36 August 1, 1990
Maine 74 9 November 1, 1997
Maryland 66 12 July 1, 1999
Massachusetts 76 7 October 1, 1996
Michigan 75 8 May 1, 1994
Minnesota 48 19 July 1, 1992
Mississippi 18 38 June 1, 1985
Missouri 17 40 October 1, 1993
Montana 18 38 August 15, 1993
Nebraska 34 25 July 1, 1993
Nevada 35 24 July 1, 1989
New Hampshire 52 16 July 1, 1999
New Jersey 80 6 July 1, 1998
New Mexico 21 35 July 1, 1993
New York 111 1 March 1, 2000
North Carolina 5 48 August 1, 1991
North Dakota 44 20 July 1, 1993
Ohio 24 31 January 1, 1993
Oklahoma 23 34 June 1, 1987
Oregon 68 11 February 1, 1997
Pennsylvania 31 29 August 19, 1991
Rhode Island 71 10 July 1, 1997
South Carolina 7 47 July 1, 1977
South Dakota 33 27 July 1, 1995
Tennessee 13 44 June 1, 1969
Texas 41 22 July 1, 1990
Utah 51.5 17 July 1, 1997
Vermont 44 20 July 1, 1995
Virginia 2.5 50 September 1, 1966
Washington 82.5 5 July 1, 1996
West Virginia 17 40 August 1, 1978
Wisconsin 59 13 November 1, 1997
Wyoming 12 45 July 1, 1989

Tags: Health