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date: 23 November 2020

The Economics of Smoking Preventionlocked

  • Philip DeCicca, Philip DeCiccaDepartment of Economics, McMaster University
  • Donald S. Kenkel, Donald S. KenkelDepartment of Policy Analysis and Management, Cornell University
  • Michael F. LovenheimMichael F. LovenheimDepartment of Policy Analysis and Management, Cornell University
  •  and Erik NessonErik NessonDepartment of Economics, Ball State University


Smoking prevention has been a key component of health policy in developed nations for over half a century. Public policies to reduce the physical harm attributed to cigarette smoking, both externally and to the smoker, include cigarette taxation, smoking bans, and anti-smoking campaigns, among other publicly conceived strategies to reduce smoking initiation among the young and increase smoking cessation among current smokers. Despite the policy intensity of the past two decades, there remains debate regarding whether, and to what extent, the observed reductions in smoking are due to such policies. Indeed, while smoking rates in developed countries have fallen substantially over the past half century, it is difficult to separate secular trends toward greater investment in health from actual policy impacts. In other words, smoking rates might have declined in the absence of these anti-smoking policies, consistent with trends toward other healthy behaviors. These trends also may reflect longer-run responses to policies enacted many years ago, which also poses challenges for identification of causal policy effects. While smoking rates fell dramatically over this period, the gradient in smoking prevalence has become tilted toward lower socioeconomic status (SES) individuals. That is, cigarette smoking exhibited a relatively flat SES gradient 50 years ago, but today that gradient is much steeper: relatively less-educated and lower-income individuals are many times more likely to be cigarette smokers than their more highly educated and higher-income counterparts. Over time, consumers also have become less price-responsive, which has rendered cigarette taxation a less effective policy tool with which to reduce smoking. The emergence of tax avoidance strategies such as casual cigarette smuggling (e.g., cross-tax border purchasing) and purchasing from tax-free outlets (e.g., Native reservations in Canada and the United States) have likely contributed to reduced price sensitivity. Such behaviors have been of particular interest in the last decade as cigarette taxation has roughly doubled cigarette prices in many developed nations, creating often large incentives to avoid taxation for those who continue to smoke. Perhaps due to the perception that traditional policy has been ineffective, recent anti-smoking policy has focused more on the direct regulation of cigarettes and smoking behavior. The main non-price-based policy has been the rise of smoke-free air laws, which restrict smoking behavior in workplaces, restaurants, and bars. These regulations can reduce smoking prevalence and exposure to secondhand smoke among nonsmokers. However, they may also shift the location of smoking in ways that increase secondhand smoke exposure, particularly among children. Other non-tax regulations focus on the packaging (e.g., the movement towards plain packaging), advertising, and product attributes of cigarettes (e.g., nicotine content, cigarette flavor, etc.), and most are attempts to reduce smoking by making it less desirable to the actual or potential smoker. Perhaps not surprisingly, research in the economics of smoking prevention has followed these policy developments, though strong interest remains in both the evaluation of price- and non-price policies as well as any offsetting responses among smokers that may undermine the effectiveness of these regulations. While the past two decades have provided fertile ground for research in the economics of smoking, we expect this to continue, as governments search for more innovative and effective ways to reduce smoking.

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