The Poorest New York Smokers Spend a Quarter of Their Income on Cigarettes

The poorest smokers in New York spend almost a quarter of their household incomes on cigarettes, and they also smoke more than wealthier people, a new study suggests.

The eye-opening findings are from a study by researchers at the nonprofit research group RTI International and published this week in the journal PLoS One. They compared smoking rates and income levels from 2010 to 2011 among smokers around the country and in New York, which has the highest cigarette excise tax at $4.35 per pack.

A huge disparity was discovered between the smokers in the lowest annual income bracket (less than $30,000) to those in middle-income ($30,000 to $59,999) and high brackets (more than $60,000). Those in the lowest bracket spent 23.6 percent of their household income on cigarettes, compared to the highest bracket, which spend 2.2 percent of household income. Nationally, smokers in the lowest bracket spent 14.2 percent of their income on cigarettes.

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Researchers also wanted to see how the increase in New York’s excise tax affected tobacco sales. The tax went from $1.50 a pack in 2003 to 2004 to $4.35 in 2010 to 2011. For smokers in the lowest income bracket, the percentage of their income spent on cigarettes during those years went from 11.6 percent to 23.6 percent.

During those years smoking frequency in New York went down 20 percent, but not among the state’s poorest smokers—their numbers held fairly steady.

“Excise taxes are effective in changing smokers’ behavior,” lead author Matthew Farrelly said in a news release. Farrelly, chief scientist and senior director of RTI's Public Health Policy Research Program added, “But not all smokers are able to quit, and low-income smokers are disproportionately burdened by these taxes.”

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How to remedy the situation? “Special efforts are needed to reduce smoking among those with low incomes," Farrelly added. "States, especially New York, generate significant revenue from cigarette taxes, but only a small percentage of that money is used for tobacco control programs. It seems only fair that states with high cigarette taxes should adequately fund cessation interventions for low-income smokers who shoulder a disproportionate share of cigarette taxes."

But not everyone likes the idea of cigarette taxes, even if they go to support cessation programs. CBS News quoted Audrey Silk of the smoking rights group CLASH as saying of anti-smoking groups, “Ulterior motives abound ... to generate bad news as reason to tighten the screws and fish for more funding to do it with. They enrich themselves at the expense of those they helped stigmatize."

What do you think should be done about tobacco taxes in New York and around the country? Let us know in the comments.

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Jeannine Stein, a California native, wrote about health for the Los Angeles Times. In her pursuit of a healthy lifestyle she has taken countless fitness classes, hiked in Nepal, and has gotten in a boxing ring. Email Jeannine |