25% of poor New Yorkers spend income on cigarettes: Are tobacco taxes ineffective?

According to the city government, 85 percent of Long Beach cities don't smoke. "A Smoke Free City," smoking is even banned at outdoor restaurant patios. istockphoto

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(AP) ALBANY, N.Y. - A new study shows low-income smokers in New York spend 25 percent of their income on cigarettes, a finding that led a smokers' rights advocate to say it proves high taxes are regressive and ineffective.

The American Cancer Society said the study by RTI's Public Health Policy Research Program using state data shows a need to help more poor New Yorkers quit smoking or never start.

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In New York, with the nation's highest cigarette taxes, a pack of cigarettes can cost $12, though many smokers have turned to cheaper cigarettes bought online and by using roll-your-own devices.

Wealthier smokers - those earning $60,000 or more - spend 2 percent on cigarettes, according to the study.

"The poor pay $600 million in cigarette taxes and get little help in quitting," said Russ Sciandra of the American Cancer Society.

He said state statistics show smokers earning less than $30,000 pay 39 percent of state and city taxes on cigarettes. More of the cigarette tax revenue has to be used to better fund smoking cessation programs, now at a fraction of the federal recommendation, and to aim more at low-income households, he said.

Sciandra said other studies show lower income smokers have less success at quitting. He said low-income smokers trying to quit are hampered by being around many smokers and having less cash to buy smoking cessation aids.

But for smokers, the study proves cigarette taxes are punitive and "undeniably regressive," said Audrey Silk of CLASH, a national smokers' rights organization.

"It busts their theory that high taxes equal submission to their coercive measure at the same time," she said. She criticized government "anti-smokers" who jack up taxes, but she also found with anti-smoking groups like the Cancer Society.

"Ulterior motives abound ... to generate bad news as reason to tighten the screws and fish for more funding to do it with," she said. "They enrich themselves at the expense of those they helped stigmatize."

Peter Constantakes of the state Health Department argues that tax increases and other programs are helping people kick the habit.

"Cigarette taxes are an evidence-based intervention that has proven successful in encouraging smokers to quit," he said. "New York is promoting a number of anti-smoking initiatives, including targeted media campaigns, that are designed to reduce the smoking rate among lower-income groups and prevent young people from becoming smokers."

He notes Medicaid provides extensive smoking cessation products, while some state programs are aimed at communities with low incomes and education rates and high racial and ethnic minority populations.

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