BROWN: Cutting through the smoke
Increasing taxes on cigarettes could have positive impacts on tourism and public health
The Charlottesville City Council is likely to pass a tax increase on the sale of cigarettes, a move intended to improve public health as well as provide increased revenue to the city. While tax increases are never universally popular, this is a great move for Charlottesville for several reasons. It provides a strong incentive for Charlottesville residents not to smoke, which will improve the quality of public spaces and make visiting places like the Downtown Mall more enjoyable. It will provide money to fund government programs at a time when many local governments are struggling to meet budgets. And it will decrease the long-term medical expenses of people who would otherwise develop lung cancer or other ailments as a result of their smoking.
Charlottesville is a pedestrian town. Much of the local business and culture relies on people having fun walking in public areas, such as the Downtown Mall or the Corner. The more people enjoy this experience, particularly their experience while outdoors, the more likely they are to spend time exploring these areas and patronizing local businesses. The smell created by smokers, as well as the discomfort of breathing in smoke from cigarettes, detracts from this enjoyment and therefore harms the local economy. Some studies actually show an increase in tourism revenue when anti-smoking measures are put into place, which higher taxes on cigarettes would parallel. Making the pedestrian experience in Charlottesville more comfortable could only benefit local businesses.
The cigarette tax would also generate around $265,000 in annual taxes for the city. While not a large amount compared to the 2014-15 budget of around $150 million, it is still a substantial amount of money. And it would effectively halve the projected $500,000 deficit facing the school system. At a time when minimizing debt at all levels of government is a priority, that kind of improvement cannot be dismissed.
The tax could also save money in the long-term by cutting down on local health costs. Anti-smoking measures are correlated with large drops in medical expenses. On a national level, if every state increased their cigarette tax by a dollar, a total of $600 million would be saved over 5 years in health care expenses. Charlottesville can get its piece of those potential savings by enacting the tax increase, which would improve the city’s bottom line even more, as well as free up medical facilities for other services.
Critics of the proposal argue taxes are not intended to be used as a means of behavior modification. In response, I would point to the history of using tariffs to increase sales of domestic products, a tradition dating back to the earliest days of our nation. Using taxes to dissuade people from harming themselves and those around them is no different from using taxes to persuade people to buy American products. Economic incentives have noticeable effects on behavior, as seen in the shift in American driving habits as gas prices have increased. There is no reason not to use this phenomenon for the benefit of the public health.
Others may argue the tax could harm low-income smokers who are unable to quit. This is a real risk of these types of tax hikes, but it’s also the reason they work. If the increase didn’t create any economic strain on individuals, it also wouldn’t produce a change in behavior. The overall benefits of a cigarette tax outweigh its downsides.
Charlottesville is one of the most beautiful and active cities in the country. By passing a cigarette tax increase that would decrease smoking in the city and increase revenue in the local government and economy, the city would only improve.
Forrest Brown is an Opinion columnist for the Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.