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The Price of Smoking in Black and White

In today’s New York Times, Anthony Ramirez reports on the sharp decline in smoking in New York City. According to a study that interviewed 10,000 city residents, only 17.5% of the adult population now smokes, compared to 21.6% in 2002.

What accounts for this huge drop? The article offers three potential causes: anti-tobacco TV ads, a smoking ban in restaurants, and a hefty tax increase on cigarettes.

My money is on the tax increases. According to the article, the average price of a pack of cigarettes in New York is now $6.85. Much of the recent research on the subject shows that tax increases indeed have a strong effect on cigarette consumption, especially among young smokers. While the Times article doesn’t deal with underage smoking, it does show a massive drop among 18-to-24-year-olds: from 23.8% in 2002 to 15.5% in 2006.

It’s also interesting to note that white people in New York continue to smoke more than black people. Here are the numbers:

Whites in 2002: 23.9%

Whites in 2006: 19.8%

Blacks in 2002: 20.8%

Blacks in 2006: 17.7%

It could be that the cost of cigarettes, and the recent taxes in particular, affect blacks more severely than whites since blacks’ per capita income is significantly lower than whites’. Our friend Roland Fryer, the new “chief equality officer” of New York schools, is on a lifelong mission to shrink the black-white achievement gap. At least blacks are on the right side of the smoking gap. On the other hand, it’s been argued that blacks have a harder time quitting because of their preference for menthols.

The only downside I can see for the massive smoking decline in New York (unless you’re a big tobacco shareholder) is that the drop in smoking may be helping people get fatter. But don’t worry, presumptive presidential candidate Mayor Bloomberg is working on that, too.