Cigarette Taxes and Unintended Consequences

One of the best questions you can ask a social scientist is, “and then what?” Thinking about second-order effects is essential to smart research and policy-making. Research on the unintended consequences of cigarette taxes helps to illustrate this point:

Besides resulting in a shift in purchasing choices, cigarette sin taxes also indirectly result in illegal activities like smuggling. Each of the fifty U.S. states taxes cigarettes at different levels, and this uneven price distribution opens up market avenues for nefarious wrongdoers. Cigarette trafficking does not appear to be extremely prevalent within the U.S., but it’s estimated to be a $1.5 billion industry in Canada. Traffickers commonly smuggle cheap cigarettes purchased in the United States across the border. It’s one of the few illegal drug trades where the U.S. is an exporter, not an importer.

Interestingly as well, a recent study just published in the journal Substance Abuse Treatment, Prevention, and Policy reported that boosts in state cigarette prices were associated with increases in binge drinking among persons aged 21-29, specifically a 4.06% increase for every dollar increase in cigarette price. Drinking also rose among those aged 65 and older.

Not all of the effects are negative, however. Recently I was talking to a colleague who will take up a position at University College London at the end of the year. I asked whether the poor reputation of British food was deserved, and he replied that it has improved substantially in recent years. Since smoking was banned in pubs, he explained, they had to improve the cuisine to keep customers there longer. How’s that for an unintended consequence?
Update: Going through my RSS feed, I see that Adam Ozimek wrote a related post on Bloomberg’s soda ban a few days back.

Starting the Conversation on Addiction

One question that has fascinated students of behavior since well before the advent of contemporary social science concerns the nature of addiction. Is it natural (chemical/genetic) or behavioral? The answer to this question has important implications for both morality and policy, and it’s one that I will likely touch on here from time to time. It’s tangentially related to my research on drug trafficking organizations but I find it interesting for its own sake.

Lately I’ve been reading The English Opium Eater, which was reviewed in The New Republic earlier this year. (More on this to come.) This question has also come up in conversations with some social workers and pharmacists (both students and professionals) that I spend time with. If you ask me, that’s the real way that interdisciplinarity works: when people get together over food and drinks and discuss important issues. The craze of interdisciplinary research for its own sake may have payoffs, but none as good as real stimulating conversation with people whose perspective on the world is fundamentally different from your own.

Basically the positions I’ve encountered on addiction are:

  • It depends on the person (from the social worker, unsurprisingly)
  • It depends on the substance (pharmacists lean this way, again not a shocker)
  • Some combination of the above
I tend to lean toward the third one, but with a bigger dose (no pun intended) of the behavioral explanation than is typically mentioned in current drug policy in the US.