Miss. residents smoke less after tax increase

Published 11:10 pm Monday, October 22, 2012

JACKSON (AP) — Higher cigarette taxes may be helping to drive down smoking in Mississippi.

Cigarette consumption fell to 67.9 packs per person in Mississippi in 2011. That’s the lowest total since record-keeping began.

From 2008 to 2011, the sale of cigarette packs in Mississippi decreased by more than 26 percent.

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Both trends, experts said, can be partially attributed to 2009’s combined $1.02 per pack increase in cigarette taxes. The state raised taxes by 50 cents per pack in May 2009, a month after the federal government raised taxes 62 cents per pack.

Dr. Robert McMillen, an associate professor of psychology at Mississippi State University, provides tobacco surveillance and evaluation services to the Center for Mississippi Health Policy.

“It’s very suggestive that some of these policies were at least partly responsible for (decreased) smoking rates,” he said.

Still, Mississippians consumed 68 packs per capita in 2011, above the national average of 48.

Surveys don’t clearly indicate that the roughly 25 percent of Mississippians who smoke is falling. McMillen said some may be smoking fewer cigarettes without quitting altogether.

“People smoke less, and people are making … quit attempts that last for a few days but are not sustained, so they show up in surveys as smokers,” McMillen said.

Roy Hart, director of the office of tobacco control, at the Mississippi State Department of Health said the economic downturn could also be a factor. He said sales are increasing for products that provide cheaper alternatives to cigarettes, such as chewing tobacco, cigars and smokeless tobacco.

“(The products) aren’t taxed at the same level of cigarettes; therefore, they are not captured in the rate,” hart said.

Jackson gas station owner Hiren Arora said his business hasn’t suffered from a drop in cigarette sales, but he has noticed a shift toward new, cheaper tobacco products or cheaper cigarettes. For example, Camel Snus, launched in the United States in 2006, is a smokeless oral tobacco pouch which doesn’t require spitting. The product goes for $2.95, and Arora said sales have increased considerably since 2009.

Though adult smoking rates may not be changing, surveys continue to show declines in youth smoking. In 2011, 19 percent of Mississippi high school students and less than 6 percent of middle school students smoked, McMillen said. That compares to 20 percent of high school students and 9 percent of middle school students in 2008.

Health advocates say they’d like to see Mississippi raise its cigarette tax rate again. Sandra Shelson, executive director for the Partnership for a Healthy Mississippi, said a tax increase could help drive down Mississippi cigarette consumption to the national average. The idea is for taxes to strain smokers’ pockets so much that, when combined with health benefits, they will quit.

“The mindset of most (anti-tobacco) advocates is that the tax will have the intended outcome of reducing the number of people who can’t afford to smoke,” Shelson said.