Healthy tobacco taxes

September 21, 1992

All too often, tax critics are so single-minded in their disdain for government that they overlook the beneficial role taxes have long played in shaping behavior. The tobacco tax is a perfect example.

When Gov. William Donald Schaefer demanded this spring that the General Assembly raise the tax on a pack of cigarettes to 36 cents from 16 cents, it proved a good step not just for the state's ailing budget but for public health as well. Yet as critics were quick to point out, an increase of 20 cents still leaves the state far short of the level of tobacco taxes that many industrial countries are using in effective campaigns to discourage smoking.

The Centers for Disease Control have estimated that the average lifetime medical costs for a smoker exceed those of a nonsmoker by more than $6,000. Add to that the other costs of smoking -- days missed from work, lower productivity, disability benefits and the like -- and tobacco taxes should rightly be seen as user fees that bring the cost of the product closer to the cost of the habit to society. Higher taxes also help to discourage smoking -- and produce a remarkable antidote to nicotine's well-documented addictive nature.

On average, a 10 percent rise in the tax results in a 4 percent drop in cigarette consumption. Among teen-agers, the time in life when most smokers establish the habit, the drop-off can reach JTC 10 percent. When Canada adopted hefty tobacco tax increases during the 1980s, smoking among teen-agers dropped by two-thirds.

In Norway, where taxes raise the average price of a pack of 20 cigarettes to $5.80, per capita consumption of cigarettes in 1990 was 698. Compare that to a per capita consumption of 2,140 cigarettes in the United States where, in July of this year, cigarette prices averaged only $1.74 per pack.

In recent months, the tobacco industry has been criticized for advertising campaigns that successfully appeal to young people -- specifically the "Joe Camel" ads for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. But in a free country, politicians should be wary of restricting any kind of speech, advertising included.

For critics of "Joe Camel," there's a better way to thwart those appealing ads -- enact cigarette taxes heavy enough to put Camels out of teen-agers' reach. In Maryland, there's still a long way to go before tobacco taxes reach that level.

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