Cigarettes are one of the most heavily taxed products in American but in the future legal marijuana could easily end up with a tax rate on par with cigarettes or even surpassing them. To understand why, you need to look at the current dynamics surrounding cigarette taxes.
A very small group of people are impacted
According to a new poll from Gallup, 58 percent of smokers think cigarette taxes unjustly discriminate against them but there is a sizable share of smokers, 39 percent, who think these tax increases are justified.
As of this year 21 percent of Americans adults have smoked a cigarette in the past week, so just 12 percent of Americans are smokers who feel the cigarette taxes unjustly discriminate against them. Not surprisingly such a small group of people engaged in an activity most other Americans look down on have repeatedly ended up on the losing side of a tax fight. There were 115 state cigarette tax increases since 2000 plus numerous local increases as well.
Yet compared to marijuana users, cigarette smokers are still in a much better political position. First, the number of regular marijuana users is much smaller. Only 12 percent of Americans used marijuana in the past year and the number which actually used it in the last week is probably half that. In the future the percent of the electorate who will be marijuana users that feel unfairly treated by high excise taxes is likely to be only in the single digits. Second, tobacco use is still more socially acceptable than marijuana use and will likely remain that way for a while.
The political forces for high marijuana taxes
On one side you will have only a small group of people personally opposed to high marijuana taxes and on the other side you will have governments hungry for new revenue being pushed to raise taxes by public health experts wanting to discourage use.
Most public health experts will point to the cigarette taxes as a reason for high taxes on marijuana. While 71 percent of smokers claim cigarette taxes don’t change their behavior the data tells a different story. The number of cigarettes consumed by a smoker each day has been noticeably falling as taxes went up. Taxes do work to discourage consumption. From Gallup:
Finally, the Republican tend to be the party which stand in the way of tax increases but Republicans are also the partisan group most opposed the marijuana legalization, most uncomfortable around marijuana users and most likely to see it as morally wrong.
What this all means is that raising so called “sin taxes” on marijuana is going to be an extremely attractive option for legislatures looking for ways to close budget gaps. Probably even more attractive than raising cigarette taxes, which has been one of the most popular piggy banks in the past decade.
The one big solace for marijuana users is that even with very high taxes fully legal marijuana is still likely to be significantly cheaper than it is now.
Jon Walker is the author of After Legalization: Understanding the future of marijuana policy