Survey data released today indicate that the share of New Yorkers who smoke fell from 21.6 percent in 2002 to 19.3 percent in 2003. The drop followed a dramatic increase in the combination of city, state, and federal cigarette taxes, which more than doubled, from $1.53 to $3.39 a pack, in 2002.
Given the increasingly hostile environment created by Mayor Michael Bloomberg's efforts to make New York smoke-free, it's possible that some of this decline reflects smokers' greater reluctance to admit that they're still puffing away. But it looks like about one out of 10 smokers not only decided that $7.50 or $8 a pack was too much to pay but did not want to take the trouble of buying cigarettes online, outside the city, or from smugglers. (The New York Times reports that bootlegged cigarettes can be purchased on street corners for about $5 a pack, and the fact that taxed cigarette sales have fallen by 40 percent, or nearly four times the measured decline in smokers, suggests that many people are taking advantage of such alternatives.) In other words, about 100,000 New Yorkers who were undeterred by the prospect of lung cancer, heart disease, or emphysema decided to give up smoking because the habit had become too expensive or inconvenient.
"It is not at all surprising," an anti-smoking activist told the Times. "This is what we said all along would happen if you sharply raised the cost of smoking." But they've also said all along that government intervention is justified because nicotine addiction prevents people from freely choosing whether to smoke. Whatever you think of using financial penalties to encourage healthier habits, the fact that smokers respond to them demonstrates the error of equating addiction with slavery. The problem is not that smokers cannot choose; it's that other people don't like their choices.