Wealth and Health From a $1 Cigarette Tax

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If you’re looking for a true stinker of a campaign slogan, you couldn’t do much better than “Vote for me, I’ll raise your taxes!” (Don’t believe it? Ask Walter Mondale. It ain’t easy to lose 49 states.) But suppose you changed your bumper sticker slightly? Here’s one way: “Vote for me. I’ll raise your taxes — and save your life.”

That, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, could be a winner both for public health and for cash-strapped states — at least if all the tax burden fell on cigarette sales. (More on Time.com: U.S. Cigarette Warning Labels Are About to Get Graphic)

It’s no secret that the recession has wrecked the balance sheets of most state governments, and while there’s been no shortage of reporting about the effect this has had on police and fire departments, education budgets and public works, it’s had an unexpected impact on smoking rates too. According to a report in today’s Wall Street Journal, states have allocated a collective $517 million to tobacco-prevention programs in fiscal year 2011, 9.2% less than the previous year and a cut of 28% since 2008.

That spells trouble since state programs have historically had a direct cause-and-effect impact on smoking among the locals. Ohio, for example, cut its smoking rate 5% from 2001 to 2005, when it was spending $60 million per year on anti-tobacco programs, according to the Journal, but only an additional 2% in the following four years when it slashed its anti-tobacco budget to just $6 million per year.

But the Tobacco-Free Kids group sees a way around that. A state-by-state tax hike of $1 per pack on cigarettes, the group calculates, could raise $9.1 billion per year nationwide, keep 2.3 million kids from becoming hooked on tobacco and save at least 1 million lives. The economic impact of such a move could ripple out in multiple directions, reducing the $96 billion spent annually on smoking-related ills, including $31 spent by Medicaid. But the money could be a boon to state treasuries as well. (More on Time.com: Photos: Your Doctor Wants You to Smoke)

In California, which yields to no state in the category of budgetary dysfunction, a $1 increase in the current 87-cent per-pack tax could raise $575.2 million per year. Texas, with a current $1.41 tax, could raise $418.8 million per year by bumping the tax up to $2.41. Tobacco-friendly Virginia, with just a 30-cent tax per pack, could haul in an additional $317.7 million per year. States could double-down on the health effectiveness of the tax by plowing at least a bit of the new revenue back into their scaled-down anti-smoking programs.

All politics being local, the Tobacco-Free site also includes a rollover map that breaks down the tax benefits state by state, including the local savings in productivity, the number of adults who would be likely to quit smoking and the number of kids who would be deterred from starting. It’s that last category — keeping young nonsmokers from ever getting hooked — that is the  low-hanging fruit of all anti-tobacco efforts. If you can make it into adulthood without ever having smoked, the odds increase dramatically that you never will. Kids, more than most people, are especially price sensitive, and the sticker shock of a pack of cigarettes is often more effective than health warnings or parental lectures could ever be. (More on Time.com: AHA: Don’t Be Fooled, Smokeless Tobacco Isn’t Exactly Safe)

In recent years, the anti-tax crowd has made almost any new revenue-raising efforts politically radioactive. But the anti-tax crowd has kids too. Keeping them safe just might be worth a buck a pack.

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