Raising cigarette taxes: one of the most effective ways to curb smoking

March 2, 2024

As the new Nebraska government relations director for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, I was excited and proud to see Gov. Jim Pillen’s call for a significant increase in Nebraska’s cigarette tax. Data from the American Cancer Society is clear: Meaningful increases in cigarette taxes are one of the most effective ways to prevent kids from starting to use tobacco and help adults quit.

Despite that proposal and the evidence supporting that strategy, the Nebraska Legislature has not yet endorsed the increase. Why not?

The tobacco industry is always working to misinform Nebraskans, protect industry profits and steer the policy discussion away from increasing taxes on tobacco products. Let me share a few reasons why tobacco tax increases are proven to reduce a state’s tobacco burden and why Big Tobacco is fighting so hard to oppose it here in Nebraska.

First, let me provide some context for the problem: Tobacco is the leading preventable cause of death in the United States. According to the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, in Nebraska, an estimated 2,500 people die prematurely as a result of tobacco use each year. In addition, at least 75,000 Nebraskans are suffering from at least one serious smoking-related illness. Nebraskans spend $924 million annually for health care costs caused directly by smoking, and smoking-caused productivity losses in the state exceed $650 million per year.

A tax increase of $2 per pack of cigarettes with a parallel tax on all other tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, would generate revenue, protect kids and save lives. Tobacco excise tax increases – endorsed by the U.S. Surgeon General – are a highly effective tobacco control strategy because increasing price is proven to reduce smoking, especially among youths and people with limited incomes. In fact, this increase would reduce youth smoking by an estimated 15% and help an estimated 8,000 adults quit smoking.

Don’t be fooled by Big Tobacco’s crocodile tears for Nebraskans with limited incomes. Big Tobacco has a history of prioritizing corporate profits over people and communities burdened by tobacco-related illness and death. In fact, they have a long and well-documented history of targeting people with limited incomes with discounts and promotions of these deadly and addictive products dating back over 60 years.

Previously secret tobacco industry documents confirm the companies have utilized a variety of tactics to target people with limited incomes. The tobacco industry is spending nearly $60 million every year to market its deadly and addictive products in Nebraska. In large part due to the tobacco industry’s targeted marketing, research has shown that people with limited incomes who use tobacco products disproportionately suffer from tobacco-related diseases, including various types of cancers, disability and premature death. This is not surprising as smoking is the single largest contributing risk factor for cancer in the United States, increasing the risk of at least 12 cancers.

When faced with mounting evidence that tobacco tax increases effectively reduce tobacco use, tobacco manufacturers will try to distract policymakers from the material facts. This isn’t the first time the tobacco industry and its allies have been intellectually dishonest. Consider the facts: Every state that has significantly increased its state cigarette tax has also boosted its state revenue, despite the beneficial reduction in smoking resulting from the tax increase, regardless of any related tax avoidance, tax evasion or illicit activity. This is true even when surrounded by lower-tax states.

At the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, we know that the most effective way to reduce illicit trade in tobacco is to reduce the demand for all tobacco products, legal or illicit. Along with implementing 100% smoke-free laws, fully funding fact-based tobacco prevention and cessation programs, we support regular and significant increases in tobacco taxes, like the one Gov. Pillen has proposed, because they are proven to be effective in helping people who use tobacco to quit.

The tobacco industry knows this. The health benefits of this policy are undeniable, and the reduction in tobacco burden is most pronounced for people with limited incomes, youths and other groups the industry targets. It’s time to tell Big Tobacco we know what they are selling and Nebraskans aren’t interested.

Megan Word
ACS CAN Nebraska Government Relations Director

Commentary originally appeared in Nebraska Examinier