Arkansas legislators have put off until next year a proposed 50 cent hike in the cigarette tax from 59 cents per pack to $1.09 per pack. The increase is expected to generate about $71.1 million in state tax revenues. This money would be used to fund a badly-needed state trauma system to respond to emergencies in which victims must be sent quickly to nearby specialists. Arkansas is one of the only states lacking such a vital infrastructure. The trauma system is estimated to cost $25 million a year and the extra revenue would be used to fund community health centers and charitable clinics serving the poor.
Arkansas currently ranks in the middle of its neighboring states in terms of its cigarette tax. If the tax is raised, Arkansas will have the second highest tax in its region, behind only Texas' $1.41 per pack tax. The situation in Maryland last year almost exactly parallels the one that Arkansas is facing this year. When Maryland's cigarette tax was $1.00 per pack, the tax ranked exactly in the middle of those of neighboring states. After the tax doubled to $2.00 per pack, it became the most expensive among Maryland's neighbors.
So what does all this mean? In a recent Wall Street Journal editorial, Maryland's cigarette tax hike was slammed as a failure because, the author speculated, it did not deter smoking and the state lost sales to nearby Virginia, where a carton is almost $15 cheaper. And as usual, the WSJ misleads its readers with anti-tax rhetoric, implying that higher tax rates decrease tax revenues. But if Arkansas lawmakers take a closer look at the numbers cited in the Wall Street Journal piece, the outlook for their proposed increase appears feasible, at least in the short term.
The editorial states that Maryland's cigarette sales fell 25% after a 100% tax increase. But what is craftily omitted is that this does not mean that tax revenues will fall. In fact, quite the opposite should happen. The tax increase is large enough to offset the fall in sales so much that the state should actually gain 50% more in cigarette tax revenue thanks to the hike. And just as Marylanders descended upon their neighbors to take advantage of cheaper cigarettes, it is highly likely that Arkansans will do the same. But the purpose of the Arkansas tax is to generate at least $25 million each year to fund an essential trauma system, not to deter smoking. Indeed the tax may help to curb the habit, especially among youths but even if smokers in Arkansas leave the state to shop for smokes in Missouri or Mississippi, where the taxes are the lowest in the US, sales within the state are still likely generate a sizeable and sufficient amount of tax revenue because the increase in the tax is so high.
So what is the drawback to this plan? The percentage of smokers in the US, along with the number of cigarettes sold, declines steadily each year. While Arkansas and Maryland risk losing business to neighbors, they also risk losing a sizeable amount of business to quitters and the declining number of new smokers, regardless of the size of their cigarette taxes. This means that an essential program that requires yearly funding cannot be viably sustained by a tax on a product for which demand is shrinking. The policy may be a responsible budgetary decision in the short term, when money is tight and the tax is likely to generate a sufficient amount of revenue. But as time goes on and smoking becomes increasingly unpopular (regardless of price), Arkansas will have to find another way to fund its trauma system.