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Would California's proposed tobacco tax hike reduce smoking? Just ask New Yorkers

Each time New York increased its tobacco tax — now at $4.35 a pack — calls to the state’s Quitline spiked.

In New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg raised the tax even more.

“I was so angry with him, I could hardly afford it,” says Elizabeth Lane, a Harlem resident who paid $12 a pack. “I had to beg, borrow and steal to get money to buy cigarettes.”

At first, Lane managed to cut down from seven packs a week to four. But sometimes she still didn’t have money to buy laundry detergent or toilet paper. In 2013, after smoking for 40 years, the price tag, her doctor’s warnings and her daughter’s guilt trips — it all came together.

She quit.

“I said, ‘Lord, I’ve been waiting a long time for this. When will you answer my prayer?’ ” she says. “And he answered this time.”

California currently has one of the lowest cigarette taxes in the country: 87 cents per pack. If voters pass Proposition 56 in November, the tax would go up to $2.87 a pack. Backers of the measure, including the American Cancer Society and the American Lung Association, hope to hit people hard enough in the wallet that they quit smoking, or never start.

Studies support the goal. For every 10 percent increase in the price of cigarettes, smoking goes down 4 percent, according to the 2014 Surgeon General’s Report.

“Part of that is people quitting. Part of that is people cutting down,” says Stanton Glantz, a professor of medicine at UCSF and director of the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education.

In New York City, smoking rates declined from 22 percent of the local population to 15 percent in the decade that the tax, and a ban on smoking in restaurants and bars, was implemented.

California’s smoking rate is about 12 percent, the second lowest in the country after Utah. Most people here who do smoke, Glantz says, don’t smoke that much.

“It may be that a price increase that will follow Prop. 56 will be enough to just get these light, intermittent smokers to just say, ‘Forget it,'” he says.

Glantz’s colleague, behavioral economist Justin White, explains the psychology behind this. He says the vast majority of smokers wish they could quit. They know it’s bad for them. But addiction is a powerful force.

“There’s this universal tendency towards immediate gratification,” White says.

The craving for a cigarette right now easily overwhelms fears of heart disease or lung cancer in the future. But, White says, a cigarette tax can flip that. A tax also hits right now, and that has the power to compete with the desire for a cigarette.

“Increasing taxes is a way to really bring that back to equilibrium, the cost in the future versus the benefits now,” White says.

The question is, how much. He says a $1 or $2 tax is enough to sway smokers with a mild self-control problem. But for smokers with a strong addiction, the tax needs to be between $5 and $10 to work.

Either way, White says, a tax is most effective when paired with support from a cessation program.

And this is where opponents have been digging into Proposition 56. The No on 56 campaign, backed by tobacco companies R.J, Reynolds and Philip Morris, have raised $56 million to defeat the measure. Supporters have raised $17.5 million.

Opponents are investing in radio ads that say proponents “are telling us Proposition 56 is all about helping people stop smoking. But follow the money, and you’ll find out that only 13 percent of the new taxes would actually help people quit.”

This is true. Of the $1.4 billion that Proposition 56 is expected to raise from the tax, 13 percent would go to the state’s cessation programs.

But UCSF professor Stanton Glantz says that’s still $100 million, and that’s enough to fully serve all would-be quitters who need help. The rest of the tax money would go to Medi-Cal, the state’s low-income health care program, which covers care for one in three Californians.

Opponents ultimately reject the tax, no matter how the revenues would be spent.

“I’m opposed to every manner of taxing,” says Steven Greenhut, Western Region director for the R Street Institute, a free market think tank that promotes limited government. “Let people make their own choices.”

He doesn’t like that Proposition 56 would tax e-cigarettes, too.

“Vaping is not entirely safe,” he says. “But it’s pretty clear that vaping is far less harmful than smoking.”

Early studies do show that e-cigarettes may have fewer health impacts. But to what degree is unsettled. Either way, Greenhut says it’s premature to tax them.

“If you’re going to try to get people to stop smoking, why would you hammer a product that is arguably used to reduce smoking?” he says.

The science on this question is even more uncertain. Some studies show teens who vape are more likely to smoke cigarettes, anywhere from two to six times more likely. But some British studies have found that e-cigarettes can help people quit smoking.

No e-cigarette company has filed an application with the FDA to qualify their product as a cessation device. If they did and they succeeded, they would be exempt from the Proposition 56 tax, as is the case with nicotine gum and patches.

For Elizabeth Lane in New York, the nicotine patch was her ticket to quitting. Now, she no longer huffs and puffs when she walks.

“I can walk up stairs. I don’t cough,” she says. “And the circulation in my legs has improved.”

She says now she saves the money that she used to spend on cigarettes so she can buy birthday and Christmas presents for her daughter and granddaughter.

“Instead of being on the receiving end all the time, you know, give me, give me, give me,” she says, “I can give now.”

Additional reporting by Fred Mogul from WNYC.

Series: California Counts

California Counts is a collaboration of KPBS, KPCC, KQED and Capital Public Radio to report on the 2016 election. The coverage focuses on major issues and solicits diverse voices on what's important to the future of California.

Read more in this series and let us know your thoughts on Twitter using the hashtag #CACounts.