Price Increases Save Lives

A new study shows low-income smokers in New York spend 25 percent of their income on cigarettes, a finding that led Citizens Lobbying Against Smoker Harassment (C.L.A.S.H.), an advocacy group, to say the study showed that cigarette taxes were punitive and “undeniably regressive.” Criticizing those in government who oppose smoking and support increased taxes on cigarettes, they argue, “It busts their theory that high taxes equal submission to their coercive measure.”

We couldn’t disagree more with C.L.A.S.H. High cigarette taxes are not punitive; in fact, they save lives. New York’s high cigarette tax is just one part of comprehensive strategy that has successfully reduced smoking rates, well below the national rate. Our strategy also includes hard-hitting educational media, increased prevention and cessation programs, and strong public policy.

We know our strategy works. From 2003 to 2010, New York State reduced adult smoking by 28 percent, from 21.6 percent to 15.5 percent who currently smoke. In NYC, the adult smoking rate has dramatically dropped from 21.5 percent in 2002 to 14 percent in 2010.

Since 2003, New York State has reduced both adult and high school smoking by more than twice as much as the country as a whole. New York has the highest state cigarette tax at $4.35 per pack (and another $1.50 per pack in NYC), but we also have a comprehensive smoke-free air law and effective tobacco prevention and cessation programs that have all worked to change social norms.

Higher taxes on cigarettes are not aimed at the poor. This new study shows that smoking is still too high among low-income populations—24.3 percent of New Yorkers making less than $30,000 were smokers.  This just tells us where we, and the state, should be focusing our time and resources to bring down smoking rates.

Our work is not done. We need to focus our resources to bring down smoking rates among our city’s poor.  We need to increase the overall funding for tobacco prevention and cessation programs, which have been cut in half in recent years, and provide more targeted assistance to help low-income smokers quit.

It’s no surprise that smoking rates are higher among the most vulnerable. Big Tobacco’s marketing heavily targets low-income and minority communities to replace the smokers who keep dying from using their tobacco products. We need to implement policies to reduce the tobacco industry’s ability to target low-income populations and lure them into a lifetime of tobacco addiction.

It is unfair that low-income New Yorkers are paying these taxes and not getting the most effective help possible to resist tobacco addiction or quit if they’ve already started.

We’re all for equality, C.L.A.S.H. We believe every New Yorker, rich or poor, young or old, has the right to breathe clean, smoke-free air where they live, work and play.  And everyone deserves the support and resources to quit smoking. Does that sound like harassment?