Study: Cigarette Taxes Hit Poor the Hardest

Low-income smokers spend greater portion of their income on cigarettes

There's been a lot of back and forth about income taxes in this presidential campaign season -- who's paying them and who's not. But as has been pointed out elsewhere, almost all Americans in all income brackets pay taxes of some kind. They're hard to avoid.

If you smoke, you pay a lot of taxes, both federal and state. Governments have jacked up the tax rates on cigarettes in recent years in an effort to discourage consumers from smoking. Research shows it's an effective tactic.

The more cigarettes go up in price, the fewer people smoke them. Unfortunately the people who have the hardest time kicking the habit -- or simply don't want to quit -- are the people least able to pay the tax.

Where the tax falls heaviest

New research published in PLoS One, a medical journal, shows the cigarette tax falls heaviest on low-income Americans. The study, conducted on behalf of the New York State Department of Health, found smoking prevalence is highest among those with low income, low education, and working-class occupations.

While the researchers found that some lower-income smokers respond to increases in the price of cigarettes, many don't, resulting in a highly regressive tax.

"That is, lower-income smokers spend a disproportionate share of their income on cigarette taxes compared to smokers with greater incomes," the authors wrote.

A 2008 study estimates that smokers in the lowest income tercile spent 7.7 percent of their income on cigarette purchases, followed by 3.1 and 1.4 percent for the middle and highest income terciles, respectively. Since that study was completed, cigarette excise taxes have risen sharply in many states and now five states have taxes in excess of $3 per pack.

$30,000 a year or less

What, exactly, is a low-income smoker? For the purpose of the study the researchers defined it as individuals in households earning $30,000 a year or less. These smokers spent an average of 23.6 percent of their yearly income on cigarettes.

The recent increases in the cigarette taxes haven't done much to lower that number. In fact, it's higher than in the past, when taxes were lower.

Higher-income smokers pay the same tax, of course, but it's a much smaller percentage of their income. The study found that individuals in households earning $60,000 or more a year only spent -- on average -- 2.2 percent of their income on cigarettes.

Story provided by ConsumerAffairs.
Consumer Affairs

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