May 27, 2020

Taxed to life

Experiments are valid only when they have a possibility of failure, so it is not so surprising when the results scientists hope for are not produced by their work. But when that work is with children and smoking, and the experiment goes over 15 years and costs millions of dollars, failure is particularly disappointing. Especially when an effective solution to reducing teen smoking is already widely recognized.

A curriculum-based approach to smoking prevention when used alone in a school setting showed no better results than no program at all, according the recent results of study funded by the National Cancer Institute. The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research center in Seattle found students in the program that lasted from 1984 to 1999 had approximately the same 29 percent smoking rate found in a control group two years after high school graduation. The Hutchinson program, which included 8,388 students, provided anti-smoking curriculum units in grades 3 through 10 and motivational and cessation materials in grades 9 through 12.

Though the effort was admirable and the work itself impressive, the school-based information did not seem to change the habits of either boys or girls. In the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, Richard Clayton and colleagues who examined the work suggest that possible reasons for the failure were that teen-age decision-making is not always rational and can be affected by mood or state of mind. Parents of teen-agers will be relieved to learn that it is not only their children who behave like that, but there is one subject where teens often behave predictably and rationally: money.

Maine, like several other states, provide strong anti-smoking messages to teens, but it counts on the increased price of cigarettes to keep young people from taking up the habit. Nearly three years ago, Maine doubled its cigarette tax from 37 cents a pack to 74 cents a pack. It did a lot of other things to discourage smoking as well, but the immediate decline of smoking among teens suggests that the drop is due more to pricing than education. From 1997 to ’99, high school smoking in Maine fell 27 percent, dropping the state from its worst-in-the-nation status for teen smoking to merely awful.

Given the effectiveness of the tax increase and the cost to the state for smoking-related illnesses (nearly $100 million annually), Maine and other state’s might forgo long-term studies on the affect of anti-smoking messages and raise the tax again to persuade even more teens not to smoke. The state has to be careful not to raise the tax so much that it simply drives teens who live near the New Hampshire border to shop there, but an increase of between 20 cents and 30 cents could be a reasonable but effective deterrent for teens.

Certainly it would be preferable if education, a rational appeal to a teen’s understanding of the long-term health effects of smoking, were an effective means to deliver an anti-smoking message. Failing this, however, taxes talk and, with the price of cigarettes anyway, teens listen.

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