Poorer Smokers in New York State spend a quarter of income on cigarettes

Issue 22, Winter/Spring 2014

Earmark more tobacco tax revenue to help these low-income smokers quit, experts say

In New York State, which has the highest cigarette taxes in the nation, low-income smokers now spend nearly one-quarter of their incomes buying cigarettes, a study has found.

What's more, smoking rates among the poorest New Yorkers have barely budged over the past decade – despite steep hikes in cigarette prices.

“Special efforts are needed to reduce smoking among those with low incomes,” said lead author Dr. Matthew Farrelly, senior director of the Public Health Policy Research Program at the nonprofit RTI institute. He added that, while states derive millions from cigarette taxes, “only a small percentage of that money is used for tobacco control programs. It seems only fair that states with high cigarette taxes should adequately fund cessation interventions for low-income smokers.”

Restaurant Workers Smoking

Reporting in the journal PLoS One, Farrelly’s team looked at data from the New York and national Adult Tobacco Surveys for the years 2010-2011. New York State currently has the highest cigarette excise taxes in the nation at $4.35 per pack.

The study found that buying cigarettes took a much bigger bite out of the annual income of New York smokers earning under $30,000 per year than it did for those making over $60,000, at 23.6 percent and 2.2 percent, respectively.

Numerous studies have shown that hikes in cigarette prices do help discourage smoking and raise quit rates. But poorer smokers are also much more likely to cling to the smoking habit than their more affluent peers.

In fact, the study notes that, in New York State, the prevalence of smoking in households making less than $25,000 per year “had no statistically significant decline” between 2003 and 2010, hovering around 25 percent despite steady increases in excise taxes.

“Excise taxes are effective in changing smokers’ behavior,” Farrelly said, “but not all smokers are able to quit, and low income smokers are disproportionately burdened by these taxes.”

The American Cancer Society agreed that cigarette tax revenues could be better spent.

“The poor pay $600 million in cigarette taxes and get little help in quitting,” Russ Sciandra, the society’s director of advocacy for New York State, told the Associated Press. He also pointed to state statistics that found that New Yorkers earning less than $30,000 per year pay 39 percent of state and city cigarette taxes.

Peter Constantakes, of the New York State Health Department, countered that cigarette tax revenue was working to up quit rates.

“New York is promoting a number of antismoking initiatives,” he told the AP, “including targeted media campaigns that are designed to reduce the smoking rate among lower-income groups and prevent young people from becoming smokers.”