By HEATHER NELLIS
Recorder News Staff
A study released last week says the state's high cigarette taxes disproportionately burden low-income smokers, who puff at what was described as a "stubbornly high" rate.
Researchers at RTI International in North Carolina say smokers who make less than $25,000 annually spend a quarter of their income on cigarettes, while smokers who make more than $60,000 only spend 2 percent.
RTI representatives said the study couldn't be broken down into countywide data, but the state Department of Health website indicates 23 percent of Montgomery County residents smoke, as do 25 percent of Fulton County residents.
State Department of Health Spokesman Jeffrey Hammond says statewide, 18 percent of the population smokes.
Montgomery County Supervising Public Health Nurse Cindy Christman said the department hasn't received 2010 data yet.
"I'm hoping the numbers will be lower," she said, noting the department's smoking cessation programs include availability of pamphlets, letters to the editor in local media, relaying resources from the state's Smokers' Quitline, and a partnership with Project Action. "Smoking is an addiction, just like drinking is, and someone's really got to want to quit."
Across the state, smoking decreased 20 percent between 2003 and 2010, the study says.
But for the lowest-income groups, there's been "no statistically significant decline in smoking." In the same period, the smoking rate for dropped from 26.9 percent to 24.3 percent, which the study described as "stubbornly high."
More data from that time period indicates smokers who make less than $30,000 annually doubled the amount of income spent on cigarettes, the study says. The state has the highest cigarette tax in the nation
"People in the lowest income group continue to smoke at a much higher rate than higher-income groups," it reads. "This implies that low-income smokers have not been more price responsive than smokers with high incomes."
The data is concerning, the study says, because disparities in smoking prevalence contributes to the increasing disparity in life expectancies between those in higher and lower socioeconomic groups.
Matthew Farrelly, chief scientist and senior director of RTI's Public Health Policy Research Program and the study's lead author, said special efforts are needed to reduce smoking among those with low incomes.
"States, especially New York, generate significant revenue from cigarette taxes, but only a small percentage of that money is used for tobacco control programs," he said. "It seems only fair that states with high cigarette taxes should adequately fund cessation interventions for low-income smokers, who shoulder a disproportionate share of cigarette taxes."
Christman said the department's cessation programs aren't targeted at any specific population.
"We address anyone who smokes, regardless of income or anything else," she said.
Hammond said low-income smokers may access the Smokers' Quitline offers free counseling and free nicotine replacement therapy.
He said the state's cessation centers are partnering with federally-qualified health centers and behavioral health providers to address tobacco use disparities among low-income smokers
"New York's tobacco control program continues to operate effective, evidence-based programs to help people quit smoking, and prevent others from ever starting," he said.