Friday, February 03, 2006

Support for Cigarette Tax Increase?

According to a new Quinnipiac University poll, 71 percent of New Yorkers support the Mayor’s increased cigarette tax, including 36 percent of smokers. Also revealed, at the Post phrases it, is that fewer people are smoking: “Only 17 percent said they had smoked in the past week, compared with 23 percent in April 2001.”

A couple of points must be made. The Alliance’s insistence is not on stopping new tax increases but on enforcing the current cigarette tax laws vis-à-vis Native American retailers before the levy is raised. Though raising the tax may be popular, Bloomberg should not do until these other issues are resolved. For as the mayor likes to point out, he does not enact important public policy issues based on popularity and if this is true he should demand the elimination of the Native American loophole before raising any levies.

The other point concerns the cigarette tax and the number of people smoking. First, the Q-poll’s benchmark for this assessment – the number of people who smoked in the past week in 2006 vs. 2001 – is a bit flimsy. But let’s assume for a moment that what the poll reveals is true, that there are 6% fewer New Yorkers smoking now than before Bloomberg came into office.

Well, despite the mayor’s claims, there is no proof correlating the decrease in smoking to the increased tax. This is highlighted by the fact that since Bloomberg’s tax increase NYC retailers have lost 60% of their tobacco sales while the city and the Q-poll claim there is only a 6% drop in smoking.

What about this remaining 54%? As we’ve pointed out, this large percentage of smokers are simply buying non-taxed cigarettes from Indian reservations or from illegal vendors on the streets of New York. Until the price of cigs becomes relatively consistent across the region, there is absolutely no way to determine if price dissuades people from lighting up. And until this parity is achieved, through the enforcement of existing regulations, legitimate retailers will continue to be unfairly harmed and public health goals of reducing smoking will not be met.