Vice Charge

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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.

NEXT: Taking Down Zarqawi

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  1. Slippery Pete,

    I believe you have Sullum’s argument backward. He’s saying that because some people did quit that this proves they had free will in the matter. Of course the tax backers could have scored points no matter what happened. If no one quit, then that would prove the cigarette smokers are indeed slaves. If most of them quit, that would show the great health benefits of the tax. Either way, they (and you) are ignoring the two points I raised earlier, that’s it’s immoral to force people’s hands when they’re not inherently and directly harming others and there are undersirable side effects. The former point is likely dismissed on the grounds that smokers all want to quit. I personally doubt that. How ’bout you? You’re saying that because a small number quit that this demonstrates the difficulty of quitting. But your basing that conclusion on a questionable premise (plus ignoring the possibility that alternative methods of buying cigarrettes dilute the effect of the tax increase on elasticity of demand). Further, you conflate the distinction between difficulty and impossibility. I tried to meet you halfway by agreeing that quitting cigarettes can be difficult. Do you really think that makes it no different from impossible? Make yourself clear, boy!

  2. Russ D,

    Not to say that you are wrong, but smoking changing the efficacy of antidpressents is neither proven nor a universal order from doctors. (I know a number of people on ADs, and none have been so ordered; and they smoke).

    Also, Wellbutrin is the only AD that is clinically proven to actually help smoking cessation. Your charge that people are using ADs as a smoking replacement is questionable at best. As a previous user of both, I can tell you that the effect of ADs and smoking are so different that they have little to no effect on each others use (although I’ve never tried Wellbutrin).

  3. I have to be brief, Slip, but you’re still missing the point completely. You were a bit more courteous, I appreciate that, but still utterly wrong.

    The point is this: the fact that some people quit smoking proves that cigarettes do not invariably deny people the choice to quit. There’s simply no way around that. It doesn’t conclusively prove that everyone has the ability to quit on a whim, I’ll concede that, but the bottom line is that it’s been proven over and over, time and time again, it *is* possible to quit smoking. Difficulty doesn’t enter in to it when arguments about the coercive nature of nicotene are being used to justify government action. You still didn’t address the manner in which you built a false arguement to refute, but I didn’t expect that you would.

  4. Hans –

    My point was very simple. It’s impossible (not difficult, but impossible) for a person to just stipulate that stopping smoking is never “impossible”. Now, either you understand the absurdity and presumptuousness of that statement, or you don’t. I do.

    The premise itself is absurd, because in the context of the lives actually lived by human beings, “impossible” is impossible to define. So, instead of seeking a better gauge (like degrees of difficulty – something real, actual human beings have experience with), instead you throw up propeller-head ideological talking points: Choice exists because we demand that it exist! It exists because we say so. That’s really the extent of your argument, if you can call it that.

    When I talk about difficulty of quitting smoking, I think about statistics, economics, sociology, epidemiology, medical studies. I’m talking about things I have read or studied in medical journals or reputable newspapers. When you talk about choice/no-choice, you’re talking epistemology, ideology, and metaphysics, divorced from actual facts. That’s how you (and Jacob) turn a classic example of price inelasticity on its head.

    In the context of this discussion, I suggest that the sciences are better touchstones than tracts by Ayn Rand and so on. Otherwise, there’s no discussion; there’s only bible-thumping. Your ideology stipulates and requires free will, so manifest examples to the contrary are ignored or, in this case, wholly inverted.

  5. Look at the bright side, you gloomy Guses. If the effect of these tax hikes is linear, not a single New Yorker will be smoking anymore as soon as the tax per a pack reaches (3.39 + (19.3 / (21.6 / 19.3) * (3.39 – 1.53)), or $19. Best of all, at that point the revenue generated by cigarette taxes in New York will drop to zero!

  6. Slip,

    In response to your Hans post, I have to agree, there is no way to scientifically prove that absolutely everyone has the ability to stop, short of seeing that actually happen. However, that is not the correct approach to use in this situation. Coming back to the fact that the coercive nature of addiction is being used to justify larger government, we need to look at the best information we have. We know that we can conclusively prove that some people are able to quit. Without some sort of hard, statistical evidence documenting an invariable physical difference between those that do quit and those that don’t, why would we ever make a policy based on the assumption that that difference exists?

  7. Slip Pete,

    Okay, okay, if you want to say it’s impossible to say it’s not impossible for anyone to quit, you win. Personally, I say it’s a difference that makes no difference, but whatever. So, what are the policy implications? I agree with you that for many it’s difficult to quit. But again, so what? What are the implications of taxing people to supposedly encourage this difficult behavoir change for their own good? You still haven’t addressed that, only your fetish for parsing pointless word definitions. And again, what of the people who either aren’t interested in quitting or don’t appreciate the “help?”

  8. To argue the mere possibility of the possible being impossible is possibly the most impossible argument to win. Or vice-versa.

    Slip, I’ve never read a more articulate non-point.

  9. JayD –

    I was simply illustrating that for a guy who was accusing me of stipulating unestablished facts, he was doing an awful lot of it himself. It was a fair point.

  10. Slip P,

    I wasn’t calling you a bad person for “stipulating unestablished facts,” I was pointing out that your argument depended on those facts to make sense, and that therefore your argument was weak. That you succeeded in tripping me up on an unrelated technicality doesn’t detract from that point.

  11. If any meaning is going to be attached to “impossible” in this context, it’s that some people (perhaps a very small number) would continue to seek cigarettes no matter how adverse the circumstances. We could imagine a test (though obviously ethical grounds would prevent it) in which smokers were made to endure increasingly great electric shocks in order to get to cigarettes, and the experimenter determined how many, after being deprived of cigarettes for some period of time, would endure the maximum shock to get one. This test has its limits, since some people might just not mind pain, but it’s one approach to the question.

    In such an experiment, how many people would show it was impossible (by the stipulated working definition) for them to refuse a cigarette? I simply leave the question open for consideration, rather than tossing out my own uninformed guess.

  12. 100,000 fewer smokers in NYC? Probably at least that many smokers flee NYC’s oppressive taxation regime every year.

    Recall how fast and loose the Blooperberg administration has been to deny the loss of establishments and jobs in the bar & restaurant industry (e.g., including fast food chains to dilute the numbers). Just imagine what sophistry is going into this latest homemade-sausage “survey.”

  13. I wonder how the people in NoNJ got hurt by increased prices for their cigs? I can’t imagine prices in Hoboken, Jersey City and others that are pressed up against the city raising their prices since they will have increased demand. Taxes don’t just hurt those they’re levied against, but it ripples out as well.

    Gas station owners by the tunnels must have had shit eating grins the day this tax passed.

  14. Just imagine what sophistry is going into this latest homemade-sausage “survey.”

    This New Yorker and most of his friends smoke, and EVERY SINGLE ONE OF US is now buying our smokes online, for $1.50 a pack. Of course, the state gummint recently passed a (totally unenforceable) law against online cigarette purchasing. But I am willing to bet the vast majority of that 40% decline didn’t quit but instead are buying online.

  15. If it IS impossible to quit smoking, or it is sooooooo difficult as to be virtually impossible, then isn’t it immoral to tax them at $3.39 a pack? Think of the children. Really. If mom and dad earn $25K per year combined, and total three packs a day…that’s a pretty big hurtin on the already limited family budget (holly shit batman!, that’s $3700). What about grandma and her “fixed income”?

    A good liberal just doesn’t know what to think anymore (hehehe)

  16. …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.

    When are these uber-nannies going to let people decide and to realize that:

    A. Excessive taxes are regressive.
    B. People will always find a way to get what they want regardless of who is offering it.

    Now let me guess. I’ll be there still basing their budget on the with the cigarette tax before the 40% decline.

    Any bets?

  17. …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.

    When are these uber-nannies going to let people decide and to realize that:

    A. Excessive taxes are regressive.
    B. People will always find a way to get what they want regardless of who is offering it.

    Now let me guess. I’ll be there still basing their budget on the with the cigarette tax before the 40% decline.

    Any bets?

  18. “Now let me guess. I’ll be there still basing their budget on the with the cigarette tax before the 40% decline.”

    From this:
    Taxes on a pack went from $1.53 to $3.39
    Taxable sales went down 40%

    We get this:
    The amount of taxes collected went up 33%

  19. Of course, this welcome finding also defangs one of the main criticisms of “sin taxes” and state-run lotteries: that government cynically and parasitically comes to depend on people’s compulsions and addictions. As long as people can choose unpopular behavior or not, they can “choose” whether or not to pay the tax or participate in the lottery.

  20. Now let me guess. I’ll be there still basing their budget on the with the cigarette tax before the 40% decline.

    Any bets?

    I bet you, Len, you haven’t had your cup of coffee or your first smoke of the morning!

  21. If they rounded up a couple of thousand New York smokers at random, impaled them on stakes in Central Park and let the bodies rot in the sun as an example to the rest of the smokers, it would cut the smoking rate a lot more.

  22. Overlord,

    It would be interesting to see the reaction. The “serfs” in Turkey and Tsarist Russia ignored such threats and actual physical violence and just continued puffing. I wonder if “free” Americans would be cowed. 😉

  23. The liberal excuse for imposing their will (NO SMOKING) on others (SMOKERS) is: “I don’t want to pay for your Medicare costs when you get lung cancer”.

    Not enough people counter with: “Then DON’T, stupid!” We should explain to them that their charity (paying Medical expenses for those who need them) should be given to those who they see fit, rather than those who pander to the government.

    Instead we counter with (equally righteous) reasons as “Mind you own fucking business.” or “Taxes do not change peoples’ behavior”. The root problem is spending.

  24. “The problem is not that smokers cannot choose; it’s that other people don’t like their choices.”

    The self-serving presumption of the cig tax backers is that the smokers who quit are necessarily thankful that the tax encouraged them to quit. Of course in lieu of some sort of poll of these tax induced quitters, this presumption is impossible to verify. Likely some are and some aren’t. But whatever the proportion, where’s the morality in forcing the hand of a group of people because some subset of them welcome it? My social worker sister tells me of drug addicts who want drugs to be illegal. Big deal, say I. Only reinforces my observation that proximity to a problem doesn’t inherently make you more objective about it.

  25. False dichotomy, Jacob. Smokers are neither slaves nor pure agents of free will. All fall somewhere between the two. Some are quite physically addicted and have great difficulty quitting – that fact is thoroughly documented, and denying it demonstrates serious and willful ignorance on the subject.

    In fact, the 1-in-10 drop in smoking in the face of radical price increases constitutes strong evidence that the price elasticity of demand for cigarettes is low, which strongly suggests that quitting is very difficult for most smokers.

    A sharp drop in smoking rates, by contrast, would count as evidence that smokers have more or less retained “free will” and, therefore, that their choice to smoke (or, more specifically, to continue to smoke) was just that – a free choice, not the result of a physical addiction.

    What we have here is strong evidence that everything libertarian ideologues have been saying about smoking is probably wrong.

    That’s not to say cigarettes should be taxed out the ass, though. If huge cigarette taxes turn tens of thousands of New Yorkers into criminals, I think you have to question the sanity of those taxes.

  26. Straw Man, Slippery. No one said that nicotene doesn’t make choices more or less difficult. The point is that free will is not removed; it is possible to quit if one chooses to do so. The issue isn’t whether a choice is difficult or how difficult it is. The point is that the choice exists. Nannies tend to portray quitting as something that people are incapable of doing without the benevolent hands of men with guns influencing their choices. They’re wrong.

  27. Matthew –

    Your comment is incoherent. “More difficult” and “less difficult” are waypoints between “possible” and “impossible”, as anybody with a basic understanding of the human language knows.

    It seems to me that you’re not willing to let objective facts get in the way of your ideology, which demands that “free will” always exist, and which falters in situations where free will is less than pure and perfect.

  28. Slippery Pete,

    Just because a choice is “difficult” doesn’t make it any less of a choice. And, just as I predicted in my previous post, you seem to be assuming that all cigarette smokers want to quit, thus your deduction that anyone who pays more (or goes through different avenues) for their cigarettes ipso facto demonstrates the difficulty of quitting. But in lieu of any facts to back this up, it’s just an assumption.

    Anyway, I agree that many cigarette smokers want to quit but find it difficult. I don’t know how this makes “libertarian ideologues” wrong, but my reasons for opposing a high cigarette tax are that it’s essentially immoral to force people’s hands on personal behavior that doesn’t inherently or directly harm others and it encourages undesirable repercussions. Your argument doesn’t address the first reason, and you apparently agree with the latter. So I don’t see how you’ve shown me (or anyone else) to be wrong on anything.

  29. Define difficult.

  30. Slippery: Demand elasticity is low perhaps to some measure from habituation and to some measure from the personal value a smoker gets from smoking. You fail to separate possible explanations for revealed elasticity in order to support your conclusion. Remember to some/many “nothing satisfies like a Chesterfield” even at $10 per pack.

    Ideologically, to me, the tax is state interference in private and personal life. In the case of tobacco, even the justification that the tax is actually a universally applied fee for some value rendered for the people does not apply. Ironchef has covered the proposition that such taxes are a benefit to public health. Personal health decisions are best made by individual persons, without coercion.

  31. Okay Slippery Pete, this is what you’re doing. Your postulating a certain philosophical stance and treating it as a given. That philosophical stance being that there are degrees of free will. Sounds like the kind of thing philosophy majors can argue about forever. I’d rather not bother. We can all agree that quitting smoking is difficult for many but impossible for none. The question then becomes, so what?

  32. Slippery: Demand elasticity is low perhaps to some measure from habituation and to some measure from the personal value a smoker gets from smoking. You fail to separate possible explanations for revealed elasticity in order to support your conclusion. Remember to some/many “nothing satisfies like a Chesterfield” even at $10 per pack.

    Ideologically, to me, the tax is state interference in private and personal life. In the case of tobacco, even the justification that the tax is actually a universally applied fee for some value rendered for the people does not apply. Ironchef has covered the proposition that such taxes are a benefit to public health. Personal health decisions are best made by individual persons, without coercion.

  33. Mathew,
    I concur.
    The problem is that a majority of the sheeples in this country love to be taxed and told what to do.

  34. As far as impaling smokers on posts in Central Park, who’s going to do the impaling? The cops, who are for the most part Irish and Spanish ethnics who are the main smokers in the city, or the effete upper west siders who have to call the janitor to step on a roach in their apartment?

    I think Bloomberg’s loss next year will be the result of his smoking policies, but the intelligencia will deny it as such.

  35. Slippery: Demand elasticity is low perhaps to some measure from habituation and to some measure from the personal value a smoker gets from smoking. You fail to separate possible explanations for revealed elasticity in order to support your conclusion. Remember to some/many “nothing satisfies like a Chesterfield” even at $10 per pack.

    Ideologically, to me, the tax is state interference in private and personal life. In the case of tobacco, even the justification that the tax is actually a universally applied fee for some value rendered for the people does not apply. Ironchef has covered the proposition that such taxes are a benefit to public health. Personal health decisions are best made by individual persons, without coercion.

  36. Okay Slippery Pete, this is what you’re doing. Your postulating a certain philosophical stance and treating it as a given. That philosophical stance being that there are degrees of free will. Sounds like the kind of thing philosophy majors can argue about forever. I’d rather not bother. We can all agree that quitting smoking is difficult for many but impossible for none. The question then becomes, so what?

  37. Fyodor –

    You wrote:

    “We can all agree that quitting smoking is difficult for many but impossible for none.”

    Well, no, we can’t. In fact, I find that comment breathtakingly presumptuous, pardon the pun.

    What’s really ironic is that you began that post by telling me *I* was postulating a stance as a given. You’re postulating the struggle against addiction faced by millions of smokers in a certain way, as a given, without the slightest effort to justify it.

    If people either had free will or didn’t, the word “difficult” would not exist.

  38. Slip,

    If you were unable to understand the comment, you should probably read it again, or ask me what I meant by the part that was over your head. Using the term “incoherent” and challenging my understanding of language are not extraordinarily constructive. I’ll try again in simpler terms for you, though.

    “False dichotomy, Jacob. Smokers are neither slaves nor pure agents of free will. All fall somewhere between the two. Some are quite physically addicted and have great difficulty quitting – that fact is thoroughly documented, and denying it demonstrates serious and willful ignorance on the subject.”

    This is the portion of what you wrote that constitutes a “Straw Man” fallacy. That’s when someone creates an argument that wasn’t used, and then argues against it as though it was. There was nothing in the article you responded to that indicated that the author thought that this was the case. Mr. Sullum simply said that the fact that altering the conditions under which cigarettes are purchased does in fact affect consumption, and this fact (that I think we all agree on) shows us that addiction and slavery are not the same thing, and that it is possible for a person to choose to stop. You failed to address any of that, but did a fine job of changing the subject and using personal attacks. Well done!

    You go on to make a personal judgment as to what does not constitute a “sharp” drop in cigarette smoking, without citing any evidence or showing what would be “sharp”.

    What we have here is strong evidence that everything the nannies have posited about smoking as justification for their tax schemes is wrong.

  39. Difficulty and choice are different axes. It’s difficult for me to buy, say, a $50,000 car. I probably never will, unless I get a lot richer than I am now. But I could exercise that choice, if I were willing to give up the alternatives which that $50,000 represents.

    Similarly, a smoker who decides to buy cigarettes at $5 a pack but to endure the cravings at $8 a pack is making a choice. One would think that lung cancer would be more of an issue than $3, but people often do focus more on small, immediate tradeoffs than on large, long-term ones.

    This isn’t to say that free will isn’t more complex than a series of moment-by-moment choices. Rand claimed that free will is the choice to think. I agree with this, because it’s the content of our minds that results in the concrete choices that we make. I won’t ever blow my savings on that $50,000 car, because the thinking I’ve done through my life has led to a value set that holds financial security above flashy status. Someone who’s developed a different set of values would choose the car. In the case of smoking, the values which people have developed regarding day-to-day savings and long-term health affect how much weight they’ll give to each, with the decision to buy cigarettes or not being a consequence.

  40. Slippery Pete,

    So which part of my comment do you consider presumptuous? That quitting is difficult for many or impossible for none? You seem to have agreed with both parts at one point of your own posts or another, best I can tell, but if you take issue with one or the other, say it bro’! And if you do agree with my comment, why quibble that it’s unsupported? I take issue with your presumption that all smokers want to quit because I very much doubt that it’s true.

  41. Matthew –

    It’s a big, tough world out here on the Internet. I understand your feelings may have been hurt, and if I were there with you I’d pat you on the back and tell you it will all be OK.

    Your point was, and is, incoherent. You acknowledge the word “difficult” and then deny that it has any meaning or practical effect in the world. That’s incoherent. I’m sorry if that ruffles your feathers, but chin-up.

    If I understand you and Jacob correctly, your point is this:

    New York City raised taxes a ton on cigarettes. Few people chose to quit (and, for the record, that’s JACOB’s characterization, the basis for this argument). Because few people quit despite the big tax hike, this proves free will.

    Like I said, incoherent. It’s the very definition of low price elasticity of demand, the way economists talk of “free will”. This simplistic reduct of decision-making to a black-and-white “choice/no choice” dichotomy is, er, false. It demonstratest to me that you’re regurgitating ideological talking points, not engaging in debate. That’s they only way I know if to turn evidence (not proof, but evidence) of addiction into proof of free will.

  42. “”We can all agree that quitting smoking is difficult for many but impossible for none.”

    Well, no, we can’t. In fact, I find that comment breathtakingly presumptuous, pardon the pun.”

    Are you actually saying that you believe that it is impossible for some people to quit smoking? I’ve quit smoking for a number of years, and, while difficult (i.e. I had the urge to smoke and went through withdrawal that I knew would be relieved if I just smoked another cigarette), it was certainly not anywhere near impossible. To say it is impossible is to concede that a person could not prevent himself from going to the store and buying a pack of cigarettes. Anything that requires such active involvement for the individual (i.e. smoking) can hardly be called impossible to prevent.

  43. Is there any proof beyond circumstancial evidence that the tax had anything to do with the drop? Nearly everyone I know who is prescribed with anti-depressants (a large number, which constantly surprises me) is ordered by their doctor to stop smoking or the drugs won’t work properly. Whether or not this is scientifically true I cannot say, but the doctor’s orders are consistent.

    I won’t cynically suggest that insurance-subsidized anti-depressants are becoming cigarette replacements… OK, I will.

  44. “If I understand you and Jacob correctly, your point is this:

    New York City raised taxes a ton on cigarettes. Few people chose to quit (and, for the record, that’s JACOB’s characterization, the basis for this argument). Because few people quit despite the big tax hike, this proves free will.”

    Yall forgot to mention that Slippery Pete is completely misinterpreting what Jacob said. (And in my opinion, some of what the rest of you said.) Jacob’s only disproved slavery – admittidly an easy thing to do, but a lot of people do equate addiction with slavery – an absurdtity that needs to be addressed.

    It would be a riot though if someone tried to prove free will on Reason.

  45. T Bone,

    I specifically told Slippery Pete that he had Sullum’s argument wrong.

    Does that mean I have free will?? :=)

  46. One can get wisdom teeth pulled without anesthesia. I have done it myself. For amusement.

    I am unclear on the concept of getting other people to do this against their will.

    ============================

    Assuming the function is linear (it never is) increasing the tax by about $1.50 a pack reduced tthe size of the smoking group by 10%. Which means that they could eliminate smokers by taxing them at around $12 a pack.

    That of course would be a minimum. In post WW2 Germany for a while you could get an hour of sex for one cigarette. Then the price went up to a pack. Then a carton. Finally with a sufficiently open trade it became just another commodity. Of course the German government initially didn’t help. They banned cigarette importation on the grounds that currency was needed for more important goods.

  47. You think addiction is slavery?

    You should see people under the illusion that they need to eat semi regular or breathe often. Such need.

    On top of that some humans feel the need for regular doses of Vitamin C which most self respecting animals make on their own. What is with that. If other animals can do without Vitamin C why not men? I’ll tell you why. Addiction. It steals your soul and robs your will. On top of the that the addicts claim Vitmin C makes them feel better. What kind of deal is that where we just let people do things because it makes them feel better? And you know who the people who are always poping these pills? Refugees from the ’60s.

    It is time to make Vitamin C illegal.

  48. Oh, yeah.

    My point in all this? Genetic variation may cause a need in some that does not exist or is small in others. In addition development (gestation, infanthood, adolesence, etc.) will have an effect.

    If you are an insulin addict all is well. If you need more endorphins or canibanoids than your system normally provides woe be unto you.

  49. Slippery Pete keeps dismissing any attempt to pin down the nature of choice as mere “bible thumping,” so we’re left without any meaning attached to the claim that it’s “impossible” to quit.

  50. hey patrick, who do you guys use?

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