SIX DECADES ago, about 40 percent of American adults, and roughly half of men, smoked cigarettes. Fewer than 1 in 5 do today. The decline in tobacco use, which causes a third of heart-disease-related deaths, has had enormous health benefits. Higher cigarette taxes deserve much of the credit; similarly, increasing duties on alcohol can reduce binge drinking.
A study this year examined a pair of tax hikes in Maryland — an increase of 50 percent in the sales tax on alcohol, to 9 percent, in 2011; and doubling the excise tax on a pack of cigarettes, to $2, in 2008. In each case, the effects in dampening consumption were swift and dramatic, as documented by researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in a study sponsored by the Abell Foundation.
Opponents of such increases are often quick to denounce nanny-state politics, but government has a responsibility to promote public health. Cigarette and alcohol consumption exact a terrible toll, and not just on users; witness the impact of binge drinking on families and children, not to mention the carnage on the nation’s highways attributable to drunken driving.
In Maryland, the Johns Hopkins study found that retailers in 2015 sold roughly 30 percent fewer cigarette packs than in 2007, just before the excise tax was enacted; much of the drop occurred soon after the price jumped. Among minors, those who said they’d smoked at least once in the previous month fell even more steeply over the same span. Teenagers who don’t smoke are much less likely to take up the habit as adults.
The upshot of the 2011 sales tax hike on alcohol was nearly as striking, particularly among the young. According to a separate study that analyzed Maryland police crash reports, the number of teenage drivers involved in accidents who tested positive for alcohol use fell by 12 percent annually over the 11 years after the sales tax increase on liquor sales; among all drivers, the number fell by 6 percent annually. The fact that the numbers were largely unchanged for middle-aged drivers suggests that the tax may not be high enough.
Overall, the Johns Hopkins survey found, binge drinking in Maryland had fallen by 17 percent among adults five years after the liquor tax was levied. That drop was nearly three times greater than the reduction nationally during the same span.
Among the arguments from opponents of such taxes is that they fall disproportionately on low- and middle-income people. That’s true. It is also true that by reducing consumption (which weighs on wallets), they relieve the burden of long-term health care costs on those same people. That’s part of the compelling argument for public-health taxes, and why lawmakers are justified in imposing them.