From an editorial published in The Washington Post on Wednesday:
Americas decades-long anti-tobacco effort has yielded massive benefits, cutting the smoking rate in half since 1964 and saving untold millions of lives. But the smoking rate has plateaued in recent years, at around a fifth of U.S. adults. Has policy reached its limit?
Federal, state and local governments have not given up. Congress in 2009 gave the Food and Drug Administration authority to regulate tobacco; the agency could eventually require reductions of addictive chemicals and carcinogens in tobacco products. Federal rules now prohibit flavored cigarettes and misleading terms on packaging such as low, light and mild. Many but not all states have adopted smoke-free policies in bars, restaurants and workplaces. Some states have continued to crank up their most effective weapon: tobacco taxes, which have a good record at preventing teen smoking.
But raising taxes can also spur the development of a black market, as shown by tobacco smuggling where cigarettes are taken from states with low tobacco taxes into those with higher ones.How far even the federal government can increase its excise without inviting international smuggling or other illicit commerce is an open question.
New Zealand may help provide an answer. It announced last week a pathbreaking plan to eliminate smoking by 2025. Among other things, shops selling cigarettes will have to conceal them from view. New Zealand will increase its already high tobacco tax by 40 percent, bringing the price of a pack to about $15 (U.S.). Thats a few bucks higher than packs in New York City, which has the highest U.S. cigarette taxes. But New Zealands is also a national policy, so criminals will find it harder to supply illicit tobacco there.
There is a point beyond which raising national cigarette taxes stops being useful. But $15 a pack may discourage use further without eliminating choice. After 2016, when the countrys new policy phases in fully, public-health advocates will have additional evidence one way or another.