Cigarette Tax: Americans Weigh Fairness, Health Concerns

by Darren K. Carlson, Government and Politics Editor

Fewer think taxes are too high

It's tough to be a smoker in the United States these days -- but if many Americans had their way, it would be even tougher. Recent polling shows billowing support for smoking bans in restaurants, bars, workplaces, and hotels. While only about one in four Americans are inclined to believe cigarette taxes are too low, when asked to consider the tradeoffs in raising cigarette taxes, Americans give as much or more weight to the public health problems associated with smoking as they give to fair treatment of smokers.

Fewer Think Cigarette Taxes Are "Too High"

A recent Gallup survey on Americans' consumption habits asked the U.S. public for its views on the amount of taxes on a pack of cigarettes. The results show one-third (33%) of respondents believe cigarette taxes are too high, while 35% say they are about right, and a quarter (25%) think they are too low. While perceptions are relatively unchanged from last year, the percentage of Americans who feel cigarette taxes are too high has dipped since 2002, when 40% considered taxes too high. More now say they are "about right" than did so in 2002.

Logically, smokers -- those directly affected by cigarette taxes most -- are the most likely to say taxes are too high. Sixty-nine percent of smokers say this, compared with just 20% of nonsmokers. Twenty-seven percent of smokers think taxes are about right, and only 2% say they are too low. Among nonsmokers, 34% think cigarette taxes are too low and 37% think they are about right.

Reasons to Raise

The survey also used a split-sample experiment to test opinions about raising or not raising cigarette taxes when asking respondents to consider both the costs and benefits of doing so. Half of respondents were asked whether 1) taxes should be raised substantially as a way to discourage smoking or 2) taxes should not be raised substantially because doing so would discriminate against smokers. The other half were asked a similar question, but the reason given for raising taxes was to help state and local governments pay for smoking-related health costs.

Responses to the first version of the question are evenly split -- 48% think the taxes should be raised as a way of deterring smoking, and 49% say taxes should not be raised because that would be discriminatory.

When asked if taxes on cigarettes should be raised in an effort to help local and state governments offset the smoking-related health costs -- a wording that emphasizes a broader benefit of cigarette taxes -- a slight majority of Americans (53%) say taxes should be raised for this purpose. Forty-three percent say raising taxes would discriminate against smokers.

On both of the tradeoff questions, public opinion has changed little since July 2002. Also, smokers are overwhelmingly likely to choose the option that emphasizes not raising taxes so as to treat smokers fairly, while nonsmokers are decidedly in favor of raising taxes in both instances.

*Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,006 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted July 7-10, 2005. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.

For results based on the 489 national adults in the Form A half-sample and 517 national adults in the Form B half-sample, the maximum margins of sampling error are ±5 percentage points.

For results based on the sample of 216 smokers, the maximum margin of sampling error is ±7 percentage points.

For results based on the sample of 790 nonsmokers, the maximum margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points.

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