Normally this column is aimed squarely at schoolchildren, but I'm going to ask you kids to stop reading right now. Go play Minecraft or look through the browser history on a computer at your local library. Don't go outside, but whatever else you do, put down this newspaper immediately.
Adults, I have a confession to make. I was once a smoker. It was over a decade ago, and it didn't last very long, but I used to smoke a pack of Lucky Strike lights a day. I'm not proud of it. Smoking is the one sin in the Bible that Jesus explicitly tells us not to forgive. But for a few years there, I couldn't go more than a couple of hours without a cigarette. During this time, my teeth looked like Chiclets, and my clothes smelled like I pulled them out of a tailpipe. I was extremely cool.
I was also poor. That might have just been a coincidence, although both my smoking and my poverty coincided with my employment at a nonprofit theater for the performing arts. Whatever the cause, I fit the correlation. According to the Centers for Disease Control, Americans living below the poverty level are much more likely to smoke. In 2015, approximately 15 percent of adults smoked nationwide. For adults above the poverty level, that number was 14 percent; below the poverty level, it was 26 percent.
A Gallup poll conducted in 2008 found that the rate of smoking decreases as income increases. Thirty-four percent of American adults making between $6,000 and $12,000 a year smoked cigarettes, compared with only 13 percent of those making $120,000 or more. The CDC has also found that tobacco use is highest among people with GEDs—nearly five times higher than it is among college graduates.
I mention this because the Montana Legislature is currently considering a bill to raise taxes on tobacco products. Senate Bill 354, sponsored by Democrat Mary Caferro of Helena, would almost double the tax on cigarettes, from $1.70 to $3.20 a pack. It would also increase existing taxes on cigars and chewing tobacco, as well as introduce a new tax on the liquids used in e-cigarettes.
Caferro described this proposed increase as "a tax you never have to pay," since cigarettes are a choice item, and not a healthy choice at that. She's not wrong. But let's not pretend that taxing cigarettes is an ethically neutral act. We can say we're taxing smokers, but we are operatively taxing poor people.
That's regressive. But what if it encourages smokers to quit? From a certain perspective, a cigarette tax that falls disproportionately on poor people and the less educated might actually help, if it encouraged them to cut down. But although people of lower incomes are generally more sensitive to changes in the price of other products, demand for cigarettes is relatively inelastic.
A 2004 study published in the American Journal of Public Health found "elasticity of demand for cigarettes is approximately -0.3 to -0.5," meaning that when the price of cigarettes increases by 100 percent, demand only goes down between 30 and 50 percent. Cigarette taxes encourage people to smoke less, but they still increase the amount of money those people hand over to the government. In Montana, cigarettes average $6.14 a pack. On the low end of our -0.3 to -0.5 elasticity range, a pack-a-day smoker who finds that SB 354 has raised the cost of his habit by 28 percent will smoke 30 fewer packs a year but pay $570 more in taxes.
If it didn't work that way, SB 354 wouldn't increase revenue. Demographics suggest that what money the state would make from the tax will come disproportionately from poor and less-educated Montanans. They should probably quit smoking, and a lot of them probably want to. But a substantial number of them won't, maybe because they can't.
We think of excise taxes on cigarettes as a "sin tax." There's an element of judgment in that, as there probably should be. Cigarettes are bad, both by the standards of modern medicine and by the standards of drugs. But there are ethical implications on our side of the cigarette tax, too, and we shouldn't ignore them. If we're going to refill the general fund with money pried from those who are struggling most, who have the least education and bring home the least pay, we shouldn't pretend it's for their own good. There are habits worse than smoking, and hypocrisy is probably among them.
Dan Brooks writes about politics, culture and various ways we might tax others at combatblog.net.