EDITORIAL: Keep Up Pressure With Cigarette Tax
Even many of those who take a knee-jerk position against any tax increase have to agree on one thing: North Carolina's cigarette tax needs increasing. Again.
Though North Carolina has made considerable progress toward weaning itself from economic dependency on the weed, it is still the biggest tobacco-producing state in the nation. For years, the idea of instituting even a modestly meaningful tax on cigarettes was the third rail of Tar Heel politics: Touch it and you die. Fortunately, that attitude finally began to change a few years ago. It needs to change even more now.
Recent years have seen a nationwide trend toward higher tobacco taxes, prompted by both a need for new revenue and a desire to discourage the unhealthy practice of smoking. In 2005, North Carolina summoned the courage to join that trend by raising its tax from its ridiculous previous level of five cents a pack to 30 cents. The tax went up another nickel to 35 cents this week.
There is now evidence that this two-step increase has produced dramatic effects. According to an announcement by state Health Director Leah Devlin, cigarette purchases are down 18 percent since the first increase went into effect. During the same period, tobacco tax revenues increased by more than $110 million.
There's a bonus. The higher taxes seem to have cut most deeply into smoking by those under 18. Typically, young people have less disposable income than others. When cigarette prices go up, it becomes harder for them to sustain their health-damaging habit. While they might not recognize it at the time, that's good news for them as well as society at large.
Despite that heartening progress, North Carolina still ranks seventh from the bottom in tobacco taxes. Our 35 cents is still a pittance compared to the national average of $1. The tax is $2.46 in Rhode Island, $2.40 in New Jersey, and more than $2 in five other states.
We don't need to go that high. We may not even need to adopt the rate of 75 cents per pack originally proposed by anti-smoking advocates. But when the new General Assembly convenes early next year, it ought to boost the tobacco tax by another significant increment, lest it lose its recent momentum -- which has been both medically and economically healthy.
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