Cigarette Use Down But Cigars, Other Smokes Are Up. Blame Taxes.

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By Karen Weintraub
Guest contributor

Higher taxes drove a significant number of Americans away from cigarettes last year, according to a new study from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But instead of quitting, many of those smokers shifted to other sources of tobacco that are not taxed as heavily.

Cigarette use declined by 2.5% between 2010 and 2011, the new study reveals, while consumption of other forms of smoked tobacco such as cigars and homemade cigarettes rose more than 17%. Since 2000, cigarette use has dropped by 33% while use of non-cigarette products rose 123%, with the biggest increase coming since a 2009 hike in federal cigarette taxes – which exempts cigars and loose tobacco.

The lobbying arm of the American Cancer Society responded to the numbers by calling yesterday for the government to close that tax loophole, which the society said undermines cessation efforts and deprives the government of money.

“The CDC’s data clearly demonstrate that the disparity in tax treatment of tobacco products is undercutting our ability to effectively reduce tobacco use and save lives," Chris Hansen, president of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, said in a statement.

Dr. Jonathan Winickoff, an associate professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and an expert in tobacco control, said tax hikes do reduce smoking rates. But quitting is hard.

"Anything that makes it more difficult to get smoked nicotine will push folks to either quit or get nicotine from another source – that can include pharmaceutical nicotine, like the patch," he said via e-mail. Roughly 19 percent of Americans smoke, and although 70 percent of them say they want to quit, just 2-3 percent succeed in any given year, Winickoff said. "The quitting percentage can increase dramatically given smoke-free laws, tax increases, and availability of cessation programs. It is getting harder and harder to be a smoker in the US which is why the smoking rate keeps going down."

Karen Weintraub, a Cambridge-based health and science journalist, is a frequent contributor to CommonHealth.

This program aired on August 2, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.

Karen Weintraub Contributor, CommonHealth
Karen Weintraub spent 20 years in newsrooms before becoming a freelance writer. She's a contributor to WBUR's CommonHealth.