Making old, poor smokers pay for children’s health care

Elderly smokers damage their lungs. That’s not a good reason to make them pay through the nose.

Expanding health insurance coverage for children: excellent idea.

Raising the price of cigarettes to new smokers, and especially to young smokers, as a way of reducing smoking: excellent idea.

Paying for the health insurance by raising cigarette prices across the board, and in particular by gouging poor elderly long-time smokers: terrible idea.

The issue isn’t that the tax is “regressive” in some generic sense; regressivity could be compensated for by changing other tax rates or benefit levels. The problem is the specific impoverishment of elderly cigarette addicts. For a two-pack-a-day smoker living on SSI, a 60-cent-per-pack tax increase would eat up about about 7% of the monthly benefit check. And the health benefits of quitting in old age may very well not be great enough to counterbalance the unpleasantness of quitting and the loss of what may be an important pleasure and comfort in an otherwise grim life. (The costs of not starting smoking in youth are much smaller, and the benefits much greater.)

It wouldn’t be hard to arrange access to lower-taxed tobacco products for poor, elderly smokers. But they probably can’t pay Fred Thompson’s lobbying fee, and everyone else in the game is happy to take their money, just as the state legislatures and the tort lawyers were delighted to make smokers pay for the sins of the tobacco companies in the “global settlement” of the tobacco litigation.

Jon Caulkins and I say:Feh.

JSTOR version of the published paper here.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: