Days Without a Cigarette: 22.9375
Days Without Nicotine: 0
Dollars Saved: $61.45
Time Saved: 32 hours, 30 minutes
Edit: There are some bad and misleading arguments in this post. After I posted it, a reader followed up and set me straight on a lot of the stuff I said here. I’m keeping the post here because I (a) don’t want it to look like I’m hiding from my mistakes and (b) I want to preserve the conversation where I was talked out of this opinion. But if you read this post, please read the comments section as well, where much of what I say here is refuted.
Yesterday I wrote a post where I calculated how much money I might have saved if I’d quit smoking in an area with higher tobacco taxes. But after chatting with a few of you and reflecting on the post overnight, I want to clarify the point of it. I only did that because I wanted to make the numbers look a bit better for people who might be considering giving up cigarettes. My numbers don’t look very impressive, so I wanted to emphasize that their results would probably be better than mine in terms of money saved.
What I did not intend (and what at least a few of you seemed to take away from it) was to present an argument for greater taxation of cigarettes. While I’ll concede that there are many good arguments for high taxes on tobacco, there are also plenty of good arguments against it, and I feel the latter outweigh the former.
Now, before I dive into any of those arguments, I should concede that my brain is still in “team smoker” mode. As a smoker, I constantly found myself in debates where I was pitted against the anti-smoking argument. My brain has been running the “pro-smoker” confirmation bias filter for thirty years and it’s hard to step away from that. I don’t have a dog in the race anymore, but all the opinions I’ve bothered to formulate on these topics over the years bias towards the smoker’s position. And while I try to account for my biases in every argument, I also recognize that one can only accomplish that task to a certain degree.
So let me start with the arguments in favor of higher tobacco taxes. As near as I can tell, one of those arguments is not that it reduces smoking. Nations and states with higher cigarette taxes do not have lower rates of smokers, as the map below demonstrates. While there is some indication that young people are less likely to start smoking in states with higher tobacco taxes, there’s nothing definitive. And since the overall rate of smokers doesn’t seem to go down faster in those states with the highest taxes, it’s hard to argue that’s doing much more than delaying the onset of smoking. Now, don’t get me wrong, that’s beneficial – but it’s worlds apart from actually reducing the overall number of smokers.
I should note that there is a correlation between high cigarette taxes and low rates of smoking, but not a causal one. For reasons that should be obvious, areas with lower rates of smokers are less likely to elect people who campaign on higher tobacco taxes or to vote directly to increase those taxes. But you can see from the map that even this correlation isn’t particularly strong.
Of course, the other argument in favor of upping those taxes is that smokers create a new burden on the public coffers and thus they should have to disproportionately pay for it. And that makes sense, but it’s not something that we do with other groups of people that engage in unhealthy behavior. We don’t tax people for being overweight or for failing to exercise sufficiently. That doesn’t mean the argument is invalid, but it’s obviously not such a good argument that it’s spilled into other potential uses.
Now, the argument against raising tobacco taxes should be obvious. It’s a regressive tax that disproportionately effects the poor and the mentally ill. If I told you “Hey, I’ve got a great idea for a tax that will really hammer the poor and mentally ill and rich people will scarcely notice it”, I certainly hope that you’d be primed to reject it before I went any farther. In fact, even if there was a strong correlation between lowering the number of smokers and raising the taxes, this fact alone should make us hesitant. Not that we should abandon that effort, of course, but we should demand a damn high reduction before we consider it an overall good.
Look, it’s obvious why politicians love tobacco taxes. You can raise them indefinitely and virtually nobody complains. Even the smokers who are paying them by and large just nod along and say “yeah, I kind of deserve this.” But what we’re effectively doing is driving poor people further into poverty by adding cost to a substance that they’re already addicted to.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy to change my opinion on this. I formulated this argument when I was ‘Team Smoker’, and while it still strikes me as a pretty good argument, I get that my perspective steered my thinking. Feel free to disagree below, and keep in mind that my opinion on these matters has never been more malleable.