Startling statistics, tragic personal stories and free support don’t always put out cigarettes, but squeezing smokers’ wallets will. Raising taxes on tobacco products like Marlboro cigs and other top smoking brands is the single most effective way to reduce the number of smokers, said Leah Ranney, the associate director for tobacco prevention at UNC Family Medicine Center.
“Money talks,” Ranney said. It discourages young people from starting and reduces the number of cigarettes people use, making it easier to quit, she said.
For every 10 percent increase in the price of cigarette packs, 4 percent of smokers quit, said Joyce Swetlick, director of cessation for North Carolina’s Tobacco Control Network.
In 2007, the federal excise tax increased from 39 cents to $1.01 per pack, a tax hike of more than 150 percent, said Mike Placona, the evaluation expert for the state’s Tobacco Control Network. The state tax rate in effect in 2010 was 45 cents per pack, the sixth lowest in the nation, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
UNC junior Sarah Hussey frequents the flagpole in Polk Place since it’s one of the only places on campus where smoking is permitted. In 2008, UNC implemented a policy that bans smoking within 100 feet of university buildings.
Hussey said she picked up the habit when she started college. But North Carolina cigarette prices make it expensive.
“When you add it all up, it’s ridiculous,” Hussey said.
While raising taxes is the best single way to reduce smoking, the most effective way to get people to quit is combining efforts, Placona said.
“It’s not just a matter of economics,” Placona said. “It’s a matter of a norm that makes the tax more acceptable to people.”
If people don’t understand the dangers of a habit like smoking, the cigarette tax seems inappropriate, and people will find ways to get contraband tobacco products. In 2010, the state’s restaurant and bar smoking ban, combined with increased media campaigning and local school and park bans, helped people view cigarette taxes as worthwhile, Placona said.
Annually, smoking costs the nation $2.46 billion in excess medical charges, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. The state spends $18.3 million on tobacco cessation efforts, which is still well below the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommended amount, Ranney said.
It’s hard to estimate the true cost of smoking for an individual, considering early work termination and lower productivity due to smoking-related illnesses, Ranney said. It also depreciates the value of a smoker’s house and car, he said.
“It can even impact your relationship because smoking right now isn’t a norm,” she said. “People don’t want to date or live with a smoker.”
Lew Borman, a spokesman for Blue Cross Blue Shield North Carolina, said that using tobacco won’t directly increase an individual health care plan, but the likely health conditions resulting from smoking could bump up a person’s premium.
Some employers require tobacco-use screenings before insuring workers and have a tobacco users penalty, Borman said.
Placona and Ranney said the best way to drop smoking, like any other addiction, is with counseling and support as well as medication.