Research & Commentary: Pennsylvania Considers Unreliable Tobacco Tax Increase

Published July 12, 2016

Pennsylvania legislators have been debating how to balance the state’s budget for several months. Initially, Gov. Tom Wolf (D) and state legislative leaders attempted to increase Pennsylvania’s state income and sales tax rates to balance the budget, but those proposals stalled and have been taken off the table as potential components of the new budget. Now, lawmakers are considering two proposals that would raise taxes on tobacco products and e-cigarettes.

The first plan, originally proposed in Wolf’s budget, would increase the state’s $1.60-per-pack cigarette tax by $1 per pack, making the new tax $2.60 per pack. The Wolf administration estimates the increased tax could raise $468 million over a full year. Another proposal, this time offered by lawmakers in the state’s Senate, would increase the cigarette tax by around 50 cents per pack, and it is estimated to bring in about $270 million in tax revenue.

Both tax-hike packages would create new tobacco excise taxes on e-cigarettes, chew, and almost every form of tobacco product. Cigars are the only exception. The Federal Tax Administration says if Pennsylvania enacts the proposed $1 cigarette-tax increase, it would move from having the 23rd highest state tobacco tax in the country to the 10th highest.

Pennsylvania already relies on sin taxes to pay its bills. According to a study by, Pennsylvania leads the nation in revenue collected from sin taxes; more than $2.7 billion are collected annually from taxes on tobacco, alcohol, and gaming.

Discouraging smoking is a laudable goal, but raising tobacco taxes rarely works as intended and has many negative effects, including driving residents to buy untaxed or lower-taxed tobacco elsewhere, reducing revenues for retailers in the state, unduly burdening low and moderate-income families, and propping up spending with an unsustainable source of revenue.

The tax-hike proposal is also likely to drive consumers to purchase tobacco in other states and increase black-market sales of tobacco products. Smuggling is a real concern for Pennsylvania, because many of the states in its region have much lower tobacco tax rates.

The Commonwealth Foundation says Pennsylvania’s cigarette tax won’t bring in as much money as promised, pointing to an Independent Fiscal Office revenue estimate that predicts the revenue from the current cigarette tax will fall by 3.6 percent in fiscal year 2017. This isn’t surprising; the National Taxpayers Union Foundation found tobacco tax collections failed to meet initial revenue targets in 72 out of 101 recent tax increases.

Increasing Pennsylvania’s tobacco tax would only further contract the market over time and create budget deficits taxpayers will eventually have to fill with additional tax increases. Also, it’s important to note tobacco taxes are highly regressive, unduly burdening moderate- and low-income individuals. In a Cato Journal article, Kevin Callison and Robert Kaestner found from “2010 to 2011, smokers earning less than $30,000 per year spent 14.2 percent of their household income on cigarettes, compared to 4.3 percent for smokers earning between $30,000 and $59,999 and 2 percent for smokers earning more than $60,000.”

Expanding the tax to e-cigarettes is even more problematic. Research suggests e-cigarettes are particularly helpful for heavy smokers who have tried and failed to quit through traditional methods such as nicotine gum, the nicotine patch, and medication. Imposing excise taxes on vapor products is not justified from a public health perspective, and it removes a prime economic incentive for smokers to improve their health by switching to e-cigarettes. The American Association of Public Health Physicians has concluded e-cigarettes “could save the lives of 4 million of the 8 million current adult American smokers who will otherwise die of a tobacco-related illness over the next 20 years.”

Targeted taxes on products such as tobacco disproportionately harm low-income taxpayers while punishing local businesses. Pennsylvania’s proposed tax hike would only further contract the market over time and create budget deficits taxpayers will eventually have to fill with additional tax increases.

The following documents provide additional information on tobacco taxes and other “sin” taxes.

Three Reasons to Avoid Tobacco Taxes
Elizabeth Stelle of the Commonwealth Foundation examines Pennsylvania’s proposed tobacco tax hikes. Stelle argues they are the wrong prescription for the state, and she outlines several reasons why they are harmful.

Cigarette Taxes and Smoking
In this study from the Cato Institute, Kevin Callison and Robert Kaestner suggest future  cigarette-tax  increases will offer relatively few public health benefits, and they say the justification given for future taxes should be based on the public finance aspects of cigarette taxes, such as the regressiveness, volatility, or the rate of revenue growth associated with those taxes.

Ten Principles of State Fiscal Policy
This Heartland Institute booklet provides policymakers and civic and business leaders a highly condensed yet easy-to-read guide to state fiscal policy matters. It presents the 10 most important principles of sound fiscal policy, from “Above all else: Keep taxes low,” to “Protect state employees from politics.” 

Research & Commentary: Top Ten Reasons Not to Raise Tobacco Taxes
Heartland Institute Government Relations Director John Nothdurft argues targeted tax increases serve only to push sound fiscal policies and real budget reforms to the public policy back burner. Legislators concerned about the public health effects of tobacco should encourage the use of readily available smoking cessation products and services instead of supporting bad tax policy.

Sin Taxes: Size, Growth, and Creation of the Sindustry
Adam Hoffer of the Mercatus Center explores three criticisms of sin taxes. First, although advocates of sin taxes claim those taxes are justified because the “sinners” impose costs on society, taxing “sins” for general budget revenue contradicts that argument. Second, the economic burden of sin taxes falls disproportionately on low-income households. Third, the expanding number of goods being targeted results in unproductive lobbying aimed at preventing new industries from being considered “sinful.”

Five Things to Consider Before Raising Tobacco Taxes: A Review of the Research
This Heartland Institute Policy Brief argues, “Tax increases above current levels are not justified by appealing to the costs smokers impose on nonsmokers. Smokers already pay more than this measure could justify.”

E-Cigarettes Are Making Tobacco Obsolete. So Why Ban Them?
Matt Ridley reports vaping helps people quit smoking more effectively than any other method, examining several studies reaching that conclusion. With the success of vaping products, he asks, why are cities banning them? 

Peering Through the Mist: Systematic Review of What the Chemistry of Contaminants in Electronic Cigarettes Tells Us about Health Risks
Electronic cigarettes are generally recognized as a safer alternative to combusted tobacco products, but there are conflicting claims about the potential health concerns these products warrant. This paper reviews the available data on the chemistry of aerosols and liquids of electronic cigarettes and compares modeled exposure of vapers with occupational safety standards. 

Cigarette Tax Hikes Burn Hole in State Coffers
Gregg M. Edwards, president of the Center for Policy Research of New Jersey, reports the state brought in less revenue after its cigarette tax hike.

Poor Smokers, Poor Quitters, and Cigarette Tax Regressivity
Dr. Dahlia Remler of the Department of Health Policy and Management at Columbia University demonstrates cigarette taxes are regressive, burdening poor individuals more than other groups.

Debunking the “Tax Thee, But Not Me” Myth: Five Reasons Why Non-Smokers Should Oppose High Tobacco Taxes
The nonpartisan National Taxpayers Union observes, “The per-capita state and local tax burden in high-tobacco tax states is 8 percent above the national average, while the general tax bill for residents of low-tobacco tax states is 15 percent below the national average.”

Cigarette Taxes and Smoking: Will Higher Taxes Yield a Public Benefit?
Kevin Callison and Robert Kaestner of the Cato Institute summarize their study focusing on the effect of recent, large cigarette-tax increases on the smoking behavior of adults ages 18–74. The data suggest the association between cigarette taxes and either smoking participation or number of cigarettes smoked is small, negative, and not usually statistically significant.

Cigarette Taxes, Black Markets, and Crime: Lessons from New York’s 50-Year Losing Battle
In a Cato Institute paper, Patrick Fleenor examines New York’s half-century battle with cigarette black markets and related crime. He documents consumers’ responses to tax increases and discusses law enforcement and policy efforts to curb the negative side effects of high cigarette levies. Finally, he discusses national and international experiences with cigarette taxes and finds New York’s experience is typical of jurisdictions levying high cigarette taxes.

Cigarette Taxes and Smuggling: A Statistical Analysis and Historical Review
The authors of this study consider cigarette smuggling from two angles. First, they employ a statistical model to estimate the degree to which cigarette smuggling occurs in 47 of the 48 contiguous U.S. states. Second, they review the historical experiences of three states – California, Michigan, and New Jersey – known to have cigarette-smuggling problems. The findings suggest state policymakers should reassess the value of cigarette taxes as a revenue source and public health tool.

Vapor Products and Tax Policy
Scott Drenkard of the Tax Foundation examines vaping products and the numerous tax policies that affect the industry. Drenkard concludes vaping products “likely have much lower externalities than traditional cigarettes, and it follows that the excise taxes on the products should be lower or nonexistent. Punitive taxes on vapor products could inadvertently close out options for cigarette users looking to quit.”

Research & Commentary: New CDC Report Finds Vaping Helps Smokers Quit
A new report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found only 0.4 percent of the people who had never smoked tobacco in a CDC study group are current vapers, which the report defines as using a vaping device either every day or some days. The CDC report, the first of its kind, estimates e-cigarette use among U.S. adults using a nationally representative household survey. The report’s findings claim only 3.4 of adults who have never smoked have tried an e-cigarette; 12.6 percent of Americans have tried an e-cigarette; and fewer than 4 percent of the U.S. population are regular e-cigarette users.


Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this subject, visit Budget & Tax News at, The Heartland Institute’s website at, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database at

The Heartland Institute can send an expert to your state to testify or brief your caucus; host an event in your state; or send you further information on a topic. Please don’t hesitate to contact us if we can be of assistance! If you have any questions or comments, contact Logan Elizabeth Pike, Heartland’s state government relations manager, at [email protected] or 312/377-4000.