Cigarette Price Increases Don't Burden Low-Income New Yorkers, Smoking Does

In a Feb. 18, 2011 photo, pedestrians smoke in Times Square in New York. The City Council has passed a ban on smoking in park
In a Feb. 18, 2011 photo, pedestrians smoke in Times Square in New York. The City Council has passed a ban on smoking in parks, beaches and public plazas which goes into effect this summer. But some New Yorkers wonder whether the city's plan to make 14 miles of beaches and over 1,800 parks smoke-free is too intrusive on individual liberties and another sign of a creeping "nanny" government that already warns about eating too much salt, sugar and trans-fats. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

A new study shows that low-income smokers in New York spend 25 percent of their income on cigarettes. Smokers' rights advocates argue that this proves high taxes on cigarettes are punitive and regressive. We couldn't disagree more.

High cigarettes taxes are not punitive; they save lives. New York State's high cigarette tax ($4.35 per pack, the highest in the country, with another $1.50 per pack in New York City) is only one element of a comprehensive strategy that has effectively reduced smoking rates well below the national rate. Aside from price increases, our strategy includes hard-hitting educational media campaigns, tobacco prevention initiatives, cessation programs and bold public policy.

The dramatic decline in smoking rates in both New York City and State proves we know what works. From 2003 to 2010, the adult smoking rate in New York State fell by 28 percent, while dropping only 11 percent nationwide. In NYC, the adult smoking rate has dramatically dropped from 22 percent in 2002 to 14 percent in 2011.

Higher taxes don't in fact burden low-income households: smoking does. The poor smoke more, suffer more, spend more and die more from tobacco use. In New York City, there are still 850,000 people who smoke, many from low-economic communities. In fact, 24.3 percent of New Yorkers making less than $30,000 are smokers. This isn't by accident. Big Tobacco's marketing heavily targets low-income and minority communities. Our city's most vulnerable pay with their lives, yet they have more limited access to health care, including smoking cessation services and tobacco prevention programs.

Tobacco has taken a tremendous toll on New York. More than 250,000 New Yorkers will die this year of smoking-related diseases, and more than $8.1 billion will be spent treating smoking caused illnesses.

We need to do more. We need to focus our resources to bring down smoking rates among New York's most vulnerable. New York State receives two billion dollars every year from tobacco taxes and other tobacco revenue, just a fraction of which could fund a more robust program to help any smoker who wants to quit and make sure young people and other non-smokers don't start.

By increasing overall funding for tobacco prevention and cessation programs, which have been cut in half in recent years, we can provide more targeted assistance to help low-income smokers quit. Currently, New York "spends about 2 cents of every revenue dollar from tobacco on smoking prevention. This fiscal year, New York will spend only 16 percent of the amount recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control."

It is unethical that the poorest New Yorkers are paying cigarette taxes and not getting the most effective help possible to resist tobacco addiction or quit if they've already started. We need to implement policies to reduce the tobacco industry's ability to target low-income populations.

We believe it is unacceptable for our most vulnerable to be lured into a lifetime of tobacco addiction. Every New Yorker, no matter their income, deserves the support and resources to quit.

Our work is not done. We know Big Tobacco will not rest, and neither will we.