Hidden in the Smoke

Two weeks from today the 16-cent-a-pack federal cigarette tax is scheduled to fall to only 8 cents--the result of an ill-considered decision made by Congress in 1984. A major effort is now under way to hold the tax at its present level. The tax cut would cost the Treasury nearly $2.5 billion over the next three years. And, more to the point, it would eliminate the disincentive to smoking inherent in the higher tax. Disincentives are in order.

A new report by the Office of Technology Assessment, Congress’ scientific advisory body, underscores once again just how appallingly high the economic and human costs of smoking have become. Treating smoking-related diseases adds $22 billion a year to the nation’s health-care costs. Lost wages and productivity resulting from smoking-related illnesses cost another $43 billion a year. These are middle-range estimates. The overall costs of smoking could reach as much as $95 billion annually. Even the more conservative figure points to economic losses of more than $10 million an hour. That works out to more than $2 in losses for each pack of cigarettes sold.

To smoking also can be attributed a huge toll of premature deaths from cancer, cardiovascular disease and chronic lung diseases. The technology office puts the number of deaths at 314,000 a year. Other studies suggest a figure closer to 400,000.

Taxes probably do little to wean confirmed smokers from their addiction. But making cigarettes more expensive does lessen their attraction to would-be smokers--particularly younger people. That’s a powerful argument not just for keeping taxes at their present level but also for pushing them much higher. Earlier this year a proposal was made in Congress for a tax of 32 cents a pack. In view of the shocking economic costs of smoking and the national benefit that would come from lessening its appeal, even a tax of that size seems insufficient.