New tax would make cigarettes even more expensive

Grace Johnson

Northwestern’s smokers are already taking a hit from a federal tax increase on cigarettes, and soon a proposed Illinois tax increase could hurt them even more.

The Illinois tax, if passed by the state House of Representatives, would add a dollar to cigarette prices in the next two years, in addition to a federal increase levied last week.

In February, President Barack Obama signed into law a federal excise tax increase of about 62 cents per pack. The tax officially started earlier this month, but tobacco manufacturers started building the increase into prices in March. The Illinois increase, passed by the state Senate on Thursday and now moving to the House, would increase the state’s share of the tax by 50 cents in each of the next two years.

“As a smoker myself long ago, I generally think it’s a good idea to tax people who engage in harmful behavior,” said Jerry Goldman, a professor of political science at NU. “Smokers end up costing taxpayers lots of money to provide care for them. We use the tax code in many ways to shape behavior in order to raise money to pay for public goods.”

The proposed use of the revenue from the Illinois tax is to help fund Gov. Pat Quinn’s budget, while Obama plans to use the revenue from his tax to fund federal health care for an additional 4 million children.

State Rep. Julie Hamos said she doesn’t yet know what her position is on the proposed tax increase.

“In this specific case, it’s going to be with an overall package of revenue proposals, just one of a number of taxes the governor has suggested,” Hamos said. “I would need to see the whole package together before making a decision.”

The state representative said she has supported similar taxes on cigarettes in the past because she sees it as beneficial to revenue and public health, but she doesn’t want the tax to be too high.

“There may be a saturation point where it gets to be unfair,” Hamos said.

Students agree with Hamos that the tax increase might be unjust.

“I do think it’s unfairly targeting smokers, but hasn’t that been done in the past too?” said Katherine McGrath, a Weinberg senior. “We already don’t allow smokers to smoke in public places, but the tax isn’t violating a constitutional right.”

Though some students questioned the fairness of the measure, most agreed that higher prices might cause smokers to kick the habit.

“Honestly it might make me cut down,” said smoker Emma Dutton. “You shouldn’t have to use a $10 bill to buy cigarettes.”

Dutton said she currently “stocks up” on cigarettes when she is at home in Kansas City, where taxes are lower and cigarettes are cheaper.

The McCormick sophomore said she heard about the recent tax increase from a sign in a local 7-Eleven.

“I saw that and I was like ‘Ah whatever, I’ll just stop smoking, and of course I haven’t and I have to pay a lot,'” said Dutton, adding she filled out a petition against the tax while in the 7-Eleven.

Casual smoker Andrew Glor said he didn’t have a problem with the tax increase.

“I don’t think it unfairly targets consumers; it’s a good way for the government to make money,” the Communication sophomore said. “I’d rather they tax us that way rather than another way.”

While Goldman does see the tax having possible negative consequences, such as an increase in smuggling and a drop in coffee sales, he doesn’t believe public criticism against the tax will have enough power to affect policy.

“The tax affects a minority of people,” Goldman said. “They won’t have the power to change the tide.”

Brian Rosenthal contributed [email protected]