Smoke Screen Arguments
Yesterday, Martha King made a liberty-oriented argument against cigarette taxation, noting that cigarette taxes are imposed by a majority (nonsmokers) on a minority (smokers). A study in The Public Opinion Quarterly supports her conclusion; it found that where cigarette taxation is involved, individuals are self-interested. Nonsmokers favored cigarette taxes far more than smokers did. The majority choose to impose a tax on the minority, in many cases using moral or economic arguments that the use of cigarettes leads to poor outcomes.
The Daily RFT blog picked up on her post, but didn’t seemed particularly swayed by an argument for liberty. I had a conversation yesterday morning with my coworker Abhi Sivasailam, who suggested an efficiency argument against taxation, and pointed me to a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper titled “Cigarette Taxation and the Social Consequences of Smoking.” An argument that many people make in their attempts to justify cigarette taxes is that such a tax helps to internalize the additional costs of smokers — but this study concludes that the societal cost is already internalized.
From the study’s abstract:
Detailed calculations of the financial externalities of smoking indicate that the financial savings from premature mortality in terms of lower nursing home costs and retirement pensions exceed the higher medical care and life insurance costs generated. The costs of environmental tobacco smoke are highly uncertain, but of potentially substantial magnitude. Even with recognition of these costs, current cigarette taxes exceed the magnitude of the estimated net externalities.
So, if the costs of smoking are already largely internalized, imposing additional taxes on cigarettes is inefficient. It’s also worth pointing out that cigarette taxes are regressive, and any argument that holds the state should appropriate money from smokers to pay for other programs places an undue burden on a vulnerable group.
Is it horrible that people die from smoking cigarettes? Yes. Is it horrible that people die in automobile accidents? Yes, but that doesn’t constitute a rationale for taxing cars out of existence, or cupcakes, or the many other things that people use and enjoy that can also contribute to future poor health. If free, consenting adults choose to smoke, despite the known risks, it is their prerogative.