Latino and African American smokers are more likely to quit smoking in response to price increases than are white smokers of similar income, according to a large-scale federal study that examined 14 years of national health data.
The study, conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, found that, compared to white smokers, Latinos are 14 times more likely and blacks twice as likely to reduce or quit smoking based on rising prices.
“In the past, people criticized cigarette tax increases as being more of a burden on minority groups,” said Michael Eriksen, director of the CDC’s office on smoking and health. “The argument was that these people have less money and would experience greater hardship. We controlled for people of the same income level and still found that they are more likely to quit.”
Moreover, the effects of price hikes seem to be even greater for younger smokers. Black and Latino smokers between 18 and 24 years old were four times more responsive to higher costs than those of age 40 and older. Survey data for younger teenagers were not available.
A recent proposal to increase the price of a pack of cigarettes by half, for example, would cut cigarette consumption of Latinos by 95%, of blacks by 16% and of whites by 7%, according to CDC estimates.
Eriksen said the findings are important because smoking is on the increase among minority groups, particularly among teenagers, and these groups are disproportionately affected by smoking-related diseases.
The reason for the ethnic differences is unclear and requires more study, said analysts at the CDC. But the finding that younger smokers will quit more readily is consistent with previous research.
“Younger people are less addicted than older people,” said Kenneth Warner, a health economist and professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health.
He also said higher prices may deter young people from starting in the first place.
Warner said the study provides compelling evidence of the impact of cigarette cost on smoking behavior. “This study is simply one more nail in the coffin, as it were, in the argument that price doesn’t matter,” he said. “It clearly does matter.”
Analysts also found that families with annual incomes below $33,106 (in 1997 dollars) were more likely to reduce smoking because of price increases. “Lower-income families are less able to afford it. That’s obvious,” said Eriksen. “And minorities are more likely to be lower income, particularly Hispanics.”
Yet tobacco industry representatives say that product price alone is an incomplete predictor of consumer behavior. “I am not aware that the CDC is an economic organization, and yet they are making economic judgments in a study on how people will behave based on price,” said Scott Williams, an industry spokesman.
The tobacco industry has put out a string of advertisements recently saying that working-class Americans would bear the brunt of proposed cigarette tax increases.
The CDC study was based on self-reported smoking behavior by 350,000 people in the context of price changes between 1976 and 1993. The prices were adjusted for inflation.