President Obama’s recent budget proposal to pay for pre-school programs by increasing cigarette taxes highlights the confusion both on federal and state levels over taxing tobacco products. A recent Mercatus working paper questions the efficiency and utility of sin taxes in general. But even more fundamentally, tobacco tax policy may fail in its primary goal, which is to reduce the health risks of consuming tobacco.
Since the goal of tobacco taxes is to reduce tobacco’s harms by discouraging its use, the tax rates on various tobacco products should be commensurate with their health risks. If smoking carries four times higher cancer risks than using smokeless tobacco, then the tax rates on cigarettes should be four times higher than taxes on, for example, smokeless tobacco. Yet if cigarettes are taxed at a lower rate than this ratio, the policy may in fact encourage tobacco users to smoke as opposed to using less harmful smokeless tobacco.
A health policy that does not encourage riskier tobacco products should set the ratio of smokeless tobacco and cigarette taxes similar to their health risk ratios. According to a recent review of medical studies, snus (a common type of smokeless tobacco) users face considerably lower oral cancer, gastric cancer and cardiovascular disease risks compared to smokers (see Table 1). In addition, other studies found that, unlike smoking, snus does not lead to lung cancer (the table shows the lung cancer risk for nonsmokers compared to smokers). Importantly, snus users do not expose those around them to second hand smoking, further limiting its negative health impacts. Based on the relative health risks, snus taxes should be considerably lower than cigarette taxes.
Table 1. Comparative Health Risks
|Health Risk||Risk Ratio (Snus users vs. Smokers)|
So how do states fare? Table 2 shows the tax rates for cigarettes and smokeless tobacco for select states, which are calculated based on the data are from Tobacco Free Kids campaign (in the source, the tax rates are per ounce of snus and per pack of cigarettes). To make sure that we compare apples to apples, I account for the varying nicotine content in these products. According to a recent study, consuming one gram of snus delivers nicotine content equal to smoking a cigarette. That works out to about a can of snus (typically 1.2 oz) replacing approximately 35 cigarettes (almost two packs). So I convert state taxes to show rates per equivalent nicotine amounts. For simplicity, I focus only on the states that tax smokeless tobacco by ounce. Other states tax smokeless tobacco based on either wholesale or manufacturing prices rather than retail, making calculations trickier.
The relative cancer and cardiovascular disease risks of snus are lower than the risks of smoking, ranging between 0.14 and 0.6 (see Table 1). States with a high snus to cigarette tax ratio are essentially pushing tobacco users towards smoking, which carries higher health risks (coded red in the table). States with a moderate tax ratio are somewhat neutral (coded yellow). Their tax ratio is commensurate with relative health risks for some but not all risk sources. Finally, states with a low tax ratio generally encourage tobacco consumers to use a safer product (coded green).
Table 2. State Tobacco Taxes for Equivalent Nicotine Content
|State||Snus Tax (gram)||Cigarette Tax (cigarette)||Tax Ratio (Snus/Cigarette)|
|District of Columbia||$0.03||$0.13||21.16%|
Note: snus and cigarette taxes are rounded to nearest cent. The tax ratio is based on actual tax values.
The picture that emerges from the table is that of a confused health policy pursued by the states. Only two states in the list set the snus and cigarette tax rates at the level that does not steer consumer towards riskier tobacco products. Most states set the tax rates at levels that are commensurate with some risks but not the others. Specifically, most states do not account for the fact that snus does not cause lung cancer, which is one of the greatest risks of smoking. Finally, a few states may be steering tobacco users towards cigarettes by setting snus taxes too high (or cigarette taxes too low).
I am not claiming that smokeless tobacco is harmless or that states should promote smokeless tobacco as a substitute for cigarettes. As the National Cancer Institute points out, smokeless tobacco is not a safe alternative to smoking. It still carries increased health risks, including certain types of cancer and cardiovascular diseases. But current policy on tobacco taxes may result in the unintended consequence of pushing tobacco users away from less risky forms of tobacco towards riskier ones.