Anti-Smoking Paternalism Infantilizes Adults

The anti-tobacco crusade says it wants to reduce smoking, but it's also interested in increasing revenue, a competing interest.


Colleges and universities are not the only institutions infantilizing young adults these days. State and local governments are, too. The latest example is the District of Columbia, which is about to raise the smoking age to 21. In doing so it will join California, Hawaii and more than 100 cities, including New York, Chicago and Cleveland.

At least those measures try to protect young people from something actually harmful—unlike the speech codes, trigger warnings and safe spaces that colleges use to protect students from ideas that might hurt their feelings. But both sorts of measures apply to people who are, legally, adults. They can vote, join the military, own firearms, even hold public office. But in large parts of the nation they can't hold a cigarette.

Many of those places also happen to be heavily Democratic, and their increasingly Puritanical approach to the Devil's weed sits in uncomfortable tension with the orthodox liberal position on other questions of personal autonomy, such as sexuality and abortion. In California, D.C., and other progressive realms, it is deemed holy writ that a woman has a right to control her own body—unless she wants to smoke. (Or at least if she wants to smoke tobacco. California and the District have legalized recreational marijuana.)

The anti-tobacco crusade emanates from two sometimes competing motives. One is to improve public health. As a spokesman for D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser put it last week, "This legislation will build on previous administration efforts to promote healthy and active lifestyles and improve health outcomes for District residents for years to come." In Washington, as in many other places, the notion that government should steer people toward certain lifestyles and away from others is taken as a given, and suggesting otherwise is like suggesting that rain should fall up. That's just crazy talk, man.

Governments often turn to excise taxes to discourage smoking, and frequently note that such taxes can prove particularly effective in deterring tobacco use by young people, who have limited income. Once they try tobacco taxes a few times, though, states and localities soon find themselves hooked on the revenue. Then they build up a tolerance, and find themselves hiking taxes more just to get the same effect.

However, a recent study for the Virginia-based Thomas Jefferson Institute, conducted by the Beacon Hill Institute at Boston's Suffolk University, finds that tobacco taxes often reduce rather than increase revenue. When the town of Vinton, Va., doubled its cigarette tax from 20 cents a pack to 40 cents a pack in 2014, municipal leaders expected to see a 43 percent increase in revenue. Instead, income from tobacco taxes dropped 17 percent. Other localities saw similar effects. Sometimes revenue fell, and sometimes it went up—but it went up less than officials expected it to.

This is partly because of the price elasticity of demand for cigarettes. According to a health policy brief by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a 10 percent hike in the cost of a pack of coffin nails cuts overall cigarette consumption by 4 percent, on average.

The other reason taxes bring in less revenue is that consumers aren't stupid. If the cigarette tax in Springfield doubles, smokers will just drive over to Shelbyville. They might load up on cigarettes only. Or they might make their grocery and gasoline purchases there while they're at it.

Consumers also can avoid the taxes by substituting something else for cigarettes, such as spit tobacco or nicotine gum—or vaping. Vaping provides a vastly safer method of delivering nicotine than cigarettes do— 95 percent safer, according to British health authorities, who actually encourage e-cigarette use to help wean smokers off tobacco cigarettes. As Reason's Jacob Sullum put it, "Vaping is a gateway to quitting."

Yet here in the U.S., governments mostly are treating e-cigarettes as if they were just as harmful as t-cigarettes. The anti-tobacco measures passed in D.C., like those in California and Chicago, treat vaping like smoking by banning it in public and so forth. Such measures are sometimes pitched as ways to protect children, who—as Bowser's spokesman claimed—"often become overly exposed to tobacco products at an early age."

The claim merits skepticism, given the lack of evidence that youth who would not otherwise smoke start because of vaping. It's equally plausible that youth who are inclined to try one nicotine device are more likely to try others, but that an increase in the number of delivery methods will not produce an increase in the number of users. And, in fact, while teenage vaping has been rising, teenage smoking has been dropping.

If e-cigarettes are so much better for you than t-cigarettes, then why treat them like tobacco products—especially when other nicotine devices such as patches, gum and lozenges are not treated that way? A cynic might suspect that officials fear the substitution effect: If vaping faces fewer restrictions, many cigarette smokers will switch, and perhaps even use vaping as an off-ramp to quitting. Revenue from cigarette taxes would then plunge.

That theory runs up against the drive to raise the legal age for smoking, which has the same effect. But then, nobody ever accused public policy of being consistent.

This column originally appeared at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.