October 02, 2014
Raise Tobacco Taxes, Help Kids
Be Well

Raise Tobacco Taxes, Help Kids

by Keng Lam  |  

Now that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has launched its teen anti-smoking campaign, the issue of youth and tobacco is once again in the spotlight.

As it should be. In 2012, more than 14 percent of high school students in the U.S. were smoking cigarettes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In addition, the CDC has found that 88 percent of today’s adult smokers began smoking before they turned 18. So if we can find a way to prevent smoking during the teen years, some people might never start smoking at all.

While marketing and education remain important tools for preventing teens from becoming addicted to tobacco, policy makers and researchers have turned to another method: hitting them in the wallet.

“Taxation is the most cost-effective tobacco control method,” says Teh-wei Hu, Ph.D., a professor emeritus of health economics at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health. “The statistics show that when price rises, people do quit or smoke less.”

Many studies show that younger people's smoking habits in particular are influenced by rising cigarette prices. One study, supported by The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, estimates that a 10 percent increase in the federal excise tax on cigarettes may reduce the probability of smoking initiation in younger people by as much as 10 percent.

The same holds true for cigars. Based on a survey of students in grades 6 to 12, researchers from RAND, a nonprofit policy research institute, found that raising taxes on cigars discourages young people from smoking.

But higher taxes don’t necessarily affect everyone equally. A mathematical modeling study, using data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, shows that black youth are less likely to start smoking when prices are higher than those in other ethnic groups.

Since adults may also smoke less or attempt to quit smoking when taxes—and prices—on tobacco products rise, that’s a benefit to all. As I know from my time as a commissioner for the City of Berkeley Community Health Commission in the City of Berkeley, many young people get their cigarettes from adults in their lives. So getting more adults to quit or limit their tobacco intake will help young people, too.