Cindi Ross Scoppe

Scoppe: How South Carolina cut teen smoking, and can cut it more

Students take a smoke break at the smoking corner near their high school.
Students take a smoke break at the smoking corner near their high school. ASSOCIATED PRESS

IT’S BEEN FIVE years since the Legislature raised South Carolina’s cigarette tax from the nation’s lowest 7 cents a pack to the nation’s eighth-lowest 57 cents, and in that time smoking among high school students has dropped by more than a third.

Smoking among middle school students has dropped by a fifth.

Adult smoking has dropped 14 percent.

Cigarette sales have dropped by more than a quarter.

To say these are huge reductions is to assume that you don’t understand math, or the slow and difficult trudge of changing dangerous social behavior.

Long road to victory: Higher cigarette tax becomes law

To say they represent a huge public health victory is to assume that you don’t realize the devastating toll of smoking, which causes more preventable deaths in this country than anything else. Which makes you stink and cough and gasp for breath and turns your teeth yellow and makes you impotent. Or that you don’t understand the vital importance of stopping kids from taking that first puff rather than spending a lifetime trying to get them to give up the most addictive substance on earth.

To say taxpayers should celebrate these numbers is to assume that you don’t realize that $110 billion of the $170 billion annual U.S. cost of treating the cancer, heart disease, stroke, lung diseases, emphysema and other diseases that are smoking’s side effects are paid by Medicare, Medicaid and military programs — that is, by the taxpayers.

To say that the tax increase wouldn’t save lives, as was commonly said before it passed, would be … absurd. But hold that thought.

We can’t actually say how much of those declines can be attributed to the S.C. tax increase and how much was caused by a 62-cent-per-pack increase in the federal cigarette tax a year earlier. We can’t be absolutely certain that other changes didn’t play a role, although that’s doubtful, since the main smoking-related change during that period was the steady uptick in the number of cities and counties that banned smoking in restaurants and other public places. And that’s not likely to affect kids, since it’s illegal for them to smoke.

Scoppe: The myth of business-busting no-smoking laws

In fact, we can’t be absolutely sure that what has happened in South Carolina wasn’t simply part of a national trend that has seen teen and adult smoking rates dropping steadily, if slowly, over the past half century.

What we can say for sure, though, is that in recent years, the national trend has been driven by state after state after state raising its cigarette tax. We can say this because countless academic studies have found that the more it costs to buy cigarettes, the fewer young people start smoking.

If at this moment you’re thinking, “Well, duh,” then obviously you didn’t talk to your state legislators during all those years that they were debating, and rejecting, proposals to raise the cigarette tax. Raising the cigarette tax will reduce teen smoking, we told them. No it won’t, they said; it’s just another excuse to raise taxes, and it will doom our economy.

Yes, yes, I know: These are the same people who insist that all we have to do to make South Carolina’s economy the strongest in the nation is to slash taxes. Somehow, people who are certain they can influence behavior by cutting taxes could not comprehend that we could influence behavior by raising taxes — at least not in a good way. When we told them that raising the cigarette tax would be a smart policy even if we burned the money, they essentially turned into birthers: unable to let go of their demonstrably incorrect-to-the-point-of-absurd beliefs.

Yet despite these impressive reductions, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids says there are still 3,900 children in South Carolina who start smoking every year. There are 322,900 S.C. kids alive today who will become smokers. There are 103,000 S.C. kids alive today who will die from smoking.

South Carolina’s 16 percent youth smoking rate is still higher than the national average — though not as much higher as you might expect. And our 22 percent adult smoking rate is significantly higher than the national average.

The costs of smoking

And South Carolina’s cigarette tax is still lower than 42 states, at just a third of the national average.

To tell you that we could reduce teen smoking and save kids’ lives and our tax dollars, a lot, by raising the cigarette tax would be to assume that you process tax-related information like too many S.C. legislators. And I apologize for making such an unkind assumption about you.

Last month, the S.C. Tobacco-Free Collaborative released its 2015-2020 state plan, which has a goal of cutting teen and young-adult smoking rates by nearly half. It is, to be kind, an ambitious goal.

But it’s no more ambitious than the primary method the collaborative hopes to use to achieve it: increasing South Carolina’s cigarette tax from 57 cents a pack to $1.57. That would still be 3 cents below the current national average, and lower than 25 other states.

I have no reason to believe this will happen. But I can think of no legitimate reason it should not — and a few hundred thousand reasons it should.

Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at cscoppe@thestate.com, or follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.

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