During his tenure as New York City mayor, Michael Bloomberg (I) has had no qualms about cracking down on products that pose a public health risk, tackling everything from sugary sodas, to salt in snack foods, to illegal guns. Now, the three-term executive has his sights set on the tobacco industry, pushing legislation that would raise cigarette pack prices in the city to at least $10.50 and end tobacco companies’ ability to offer coupons or special discounts on their products.
The recently-announced initiative comes at the heels of another Bloomberg-endorsed plan to limit cigarette makers’ ability to publicly advertise their products in city store fronts. Combined, the two proposals would constitute something of a public health coup for Bloomberg, targeting smokers’ bad habit where it hurts the most: their wallets. And as the New York Times reports, the effort is targeted at teens and low-income Americans:
“This is kind of a landmark set of proposals here,” said Kurt Ribisl, a professor of public health at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, whose research on tobacco control influenced Mr. Bloomberg’s proposal. “For someone like me, who’s spent 18 years studying point-of-sale issues, this is kind of big.”
Dr. Ribisl studies what happens at the retail counter, where a customer at a typical convenience store sees a colorful array of signs, packaging and “shelf talkers” — the small tags that flutter from shelves — promoting two-for-one, dollar-off and other types of deals. According to a Federal Trade Commission report issued last year, the tobacco industry spent $6.5 billion on discounts in 2010, and Dr. Ribisl said they are one of the major ways cigarette makers encourage price-conscious customers like teenagers and low-income smokers to buy.
New York’s price-regulation bill would, in effect, close off the remaining means of access to cheap cigarettes and little cigars, which make it easier for teenagers to experiment with smoking, and progress to smoking regularly, said Brett Loomis, a researcher at RTI International, a nonprofit institute that offers research and technical services to governments and businesses.
Poor Americans are more likely to smoke, but less likely to be able to afford the habit and its associated health care costs. In fact, one study showed that low-income New York City smokers spend as much as a quarter of their income purchasing cigarettes — Bloomberg’s initiatives have the potential to price them out of the deadly habit altogether. While encouraging poor people to stop smoking is undoubtedly good from a public health standpoint, doing so through a commodity-based financial regulation has the potential to further drain their disposable incomes.
And Bloomberg’s legislative push won’t address all aspects of the problem. As cigarette prices rise nationwide and smoking rates plummet in the aggregate, studies have shown that low-income Americans — particularly, low-income women — are still smoking at higher rates than average, and turning to less costly alternatives such as loose leaf tobacco to get their fix on the cheap. Raising cigarette prices even further could propagate even more of that kind of behavior.