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The recent brouhaha over Vice President-Elect Mike Pence's seemingly scientifically-challenged opinions about smoking raises an issue that the left should consider. The issue is that a strong case can be made against the excessive regulation of tobacco products, which is at base the case Pence makes.
Fueled by a formula advanced by the World Health Organization, anti-smoking advocates predict that for every 10-percent increase in the price of tobacco products, tobacco purchases will decrease by 4 percent in wealthy countries and 5 percent in poorer countries. Tobacco-tax increases have therefore become the main public health strategy for combating smoking.
The strategy has merit. Between 1995 and 2009, for example, average tobacco-tax increases in the United States drove the cost of a pack of cigarettes up over 42 percent. During this same period, the smoking rate in the country declined by over 20 percent (from about 25 to 19 percent). Of course, other factors were involved, and smokers have more incentive to quit than costs, but it does appear that the tax increases worked their predicted smoking-reduction market magic.
However, continued increases in the cost of tobacco products via additional taxes is of diminishing effectiveness for reducing smoking. New York City's high tobacco tax, for example, has driven the cost of a pack of cigarettes to twice the average in the other 49 states. Yet, the smoking rate in New York City is only a few points lower than the national average (around 15 percent as opposed to 18 percent). If the World Health Organization's formula were accurate, the smoking rate in New York City should have fallen to around 10 or 11 percent, not remained within the margin of error of the national rate.
Meanwhile, instead of quitting, New York's smokers have turned to buying contraband cigarettes. Experts estimate that fully 58 percent of the cigarettes sold in New York are now smuggled in from out of state. Cigarette smuggling in New York, however, is only the tip of a global trend in which organized criminal networks have moved from their staples of illicit drugs and human trafficking into the lucrative tobacco market. Indeed, even Al-Qaeda and Hezbollah have documented involvements in cigarette smuggling.
At the same time, the increases in tobacco taxes are hurting the poor and benefiting the rich. In New York, again, low-income smokers (and the majority of smokers are low income) now spend almost 24 percent of their incomes on tobacco products, up from a bit under 12 percent a dozen years ago.
The increased tax revenues, though, aren't always used to help smokers quit--or even to fund their health-care costs. In Indiana, for example, then Governor Pence blocked a bill to increase the tobacco tax that earmarked the proceeds for infrastructure projects. Yes, Indiana's lawmakers were prepared to make smokers subsidize their driving habit. Chicago's smokers weren't so fortunate. They were taxed to finance the redevelopment of the city's waterfront, where naturally smoking is prohibited.
Thus, while the effectiveness of modest tobacco-tax increases on reducing smoking is well-documented, it's also documented that large tax increases aren't as effective, large tax increases invite organized crime and terrorist organizations to expand into tobacco smuggling, and all the tax increases disproportionately burden the poor while some subsidize the rich.
Of course, tobacco-tax increases aren't the only strategy the nonsmoking majority uses to penalize the smoking minority. Another popular strategy is to mandate that tobacco products prominently display disgusting images of sick smokers and their diseased organs. Unsurprisingly, the research shows that these images increase the revulsion people feel toward smoking, and presumably toward smokers, but have zero effect on reducing smoking.
The story of big tobacco's murderous exploitation of consumers is one of the most sordid of all in the annals of corporate greed. But that's no longer the salient story. The story today is of the hundreds of millions of nicotine addicts in the world whom no reasonable person believes will all be able to quit, and therefore of what prudent public-health policy ought to be regarding their addiction.
No one, let us hope, wants Vice President-Elect Mike Pence to preside over tobacco policy. At minimum, his views are tainted by his receipt of campaign contributions from the tobacco industry, but he also doesn't give evidence of being the sharpest scientific tool in the shed.
Even so, Pence's views should prompt a more informed discussion of tobacco policy than we've witnessed of late. Right now the anti-smoking advocates aren't proceeding on the basis of especially sound science either, but are rather winging it with sloppy econometrics and other scientifically dubious strategies. In the process, they are also sneakily shifting their tax burdens to the poor, encouraging the expansion of organized crime networks, and not really doing much to help the victims of big tobacco.