Smoking declines — thanks to higher taxes

Smoking is at historic lows in the United States, 18.9 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control. That’s about a full percentage point below where it was before the 2009 hike in the federal tax on a pack of cigarettes from 39 cents to $1.01 — a stunning victory for public health and the public purse.

In the 2000s, national smoking rates plateaued at around 20 percent, prompting calls for higher taxes to discourage smokers. Congress approved sharp increases, but they were twice vetoed twice by former President George W. Bush, who believed they would violate his no-new-taxes pledge. But President Obama signed the hike in his first month in office. With cigarettes now costing about $5.75 a pack, a new analysis by USA Today found that there are now 3 million fewer smokers in the United States than in 2009.

The biggest drops occurred among the groups most price-sensitive to smoking. One million adults on Medicaid ceased smoking. Seniors and Latinos had declines of more than 15 percent. As for youth smoking, University of Illinois at Chicago researchers found that teen tobacco use dropped immediately after the tax hike, resulting in between 350,000 and 490,000 fewer young smokers and users of smokeless tobacco products.

Many public health experts had quietly wondered if Obama, a smoker for most of his adult life, would vigorously pursue tobacco-reduction policies. But he has. In June, when he signed the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, which among other things banned candy flavors from cigarettes, Obama said, “The decades-long effort to protect our children from the harmful effects of tobacco has emerged victorious.”

The Obama administration has set an ambitious goal of cutting the smoking rate to just 12 percent by 2020. California is already there, and other states that combine federal taxes with aggressive anti-smoking efforts — such as Massachusetts, at 14 percent — are not far behind. If there is any tax to trumpet on the campaign trail, this is the one.

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