At first, at least, cigarette tax likely to cut smoking

October 29, 1993|By Knight-Ridder Newspapers

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton's proposal to raise cigarette taxes by 75 cents a pack may put the smoker's adage of walking a mile for a Camel to the ultimate test.

At $3 to $4 a pack, teens and young adults -- the most price-sensitive group of potential smokers -- are more likely to avoid smoking, say health experts in California and Canada, where hefty cigarette taxes have been imposed.

This is just one of the many likely impacts on American society of the proposed cigarette tax.

With little empirical evidence at hand, experts and professionals are looking to Canada and, to a lesser extent, California to gauge the social impact of Mr. Clinton's proposed tax.

Canada implemented federal excise taxes on cigarettes almost 10 years ago and has been increasing the amount incrementally ever since. Current taxes range from $2 to $3 a pack, depending on the province.

"Of all the analysis we've seen about what factors influence cigarette consumption, affordability is far and away the most important," said David Sweanor, senior legal counsel for the Non-Smoker's Rights Association in Ottawa. "It's a win, win, win situation. We reduce consumption and lower health hazards; it is popular, and we raise money.

Canadian Ministry of Health studies show that for every 10 percent increase in price, there is a 10 percent decrease in teen-age smoking and a 4 percent decrease in adult smoking. Projections by the Tobacco Institute here agree with those figures.

California, which passed a 25-cent excise tax on cigarettes in 1988, has experienced similar statistics.

Since the tax was passed, California has seen a marked reduction in smoking, especially in the younger adults, said Dr. John Pierce, the head of cancer prevention at the University of California at San Diego. It has a contract with the state to evaluate the social impact of the tax.

Dr. Pierce believes that there is no question that another tax will make people rethink their habit.

"The federal tax should have a big impact here," he said.

And almost everybody agrees that the proposed tax would reduce health care costs.

Nonetheless, experts and professionals on both sides of the issue predict that, once past the initial shock of the tax, society will absorb its impact and adjust, as happened in Canada.

"Since Columbus first took it back to the Old World, there has been wave after wave of battles over tobacco," said Dave Brenton, vice president of United Smokers Association of America. "Eventually, we'll return to normal."

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