Despite various legislative efforts to curb smoking — ranging from higher sin taxes on tobacco to public-relations campaigns intended to discourage the use of e-cigarettes — smoking rates have consistently risen in New York City.
Tobacco use in the city’s population has steadily crept upward in the city for three straight years, increasing from 14 percent in 2010 to 16.1 percent in 2013. City officials are quick to cite a decrease in funding for anti-smoking programs as a root cause, but public policy researchers disagree with bureaucrats’ diagnosis.
The lack of correlation between spending on anti-tobacco programs and results is not due to a lack of effort, according to National Center for Public Policy Research Senior Fellow Jeff Stier.
Some of the government programs cited as part of the city’s all-out efforts to discourage tobacco use include significant restrictions on the placement of tobacco displays, free nicotine gum and patch giveaways, and some of the highest sin-tax rates in the nation.
“New York City spends like a drunken sailor on anti-smoking ads,” Stier quipped.
Although officials claim that rising tobacco-use rates are caused by insufficient government spending, an analysis of available spending data does not support this hypothesis.
For example, New York state government significantly decreased its spending on tobacco control programs significantly in 2009, yet tobacco usage rates in New York City promptly fell to record lows.
Using the Available Tools
In addition to the lack of correlation between government spending on anti-tobacco programs and actual results, such public health campaigns fail to effectively use intermediate products, such as e-cigarettes, to achieve the results intended by the programs.
Often used by smokers as a “stepping stool” to wean one’s self off of tobacco dependency, former city Mayor Michael Bloomberg sought to ban the use of electronic cigarette devices in public places. As one of his final official acts as the city’s mayor, Bloomberg signed into law an amendment to the Smoke-Free Air Act of 2002 banning “e-cigs” from public use.
Stier explains that the e-cig ban is actually hindering the efforts of people trying to quit — an example of a government program’s actions actually hindering fulfillment of stated intentions.
“Instead of supporting their use to help people quit smoking, the New York City public health establishment spends resources demonizing e-cigarettes and making them less appealing,” he explained.
Piling upon Bloomberg’s efforts to ban e-cigarettes in the Big Apple, the Federal Drug and Food Administration is also proposing new nationwide rules regarding e-cigarettes, allowing them to further control and regulate usage of such products.
California Polytechnic State University Distinguished Scholar and Professor of Economics Michael Marlow’s study of the issue also lends evidence that governments’ regulation of e-cigarettes is based on faulty public policy.
Marlow’s study indicates that, if government agencies became more willing to embrace the new products as a tool to advance stated public-health goals, tobacco cessation efforts would become more effective, with “between 2.4 and 6.4 million smokers” successfully ending the habit.
Marlow also analyzed the benefits of e-cigarettes from an economic standpoint, relating such smoking cessation results to a cost benefit ranging between $15.6 and $49.2 billion per year.
Ultimately, Stier says that evidence suggests that the policy conclusion is obvious: city officials, public health advocates, and politicians should choose to recognize that taxing and regulating cigarettes, while banning viable alternatives like the e-cigarette, is not an effective option.
“Public health officials should learn a lesson,” Stier concludes. “Put your hands back in your pockets, stop asking for more money and more tax increases for your ineffective policies, and instead show some humility, given the new findings.”
Rusty Weiss ([email protected]) writes from Troy, New York.