High Cigarette Taxes Disproportionately Burden Low-Income Families

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. – Although high cigarette taxes are effective at reducing cigarette smoking, they disproportionally burden low-income smokers, according to a new study by researchers at RTI International.

The study, published in PLoS One, showed that low-income smokers in New York, which has the nation’s highest state cigarette tax at $4.35 per pack, spent nearly a quarter of their household income on cigarettes. Nationally, those with the lowest incomes spend just over 14 percent.

Smokers in the highest income group, both nationally and in New York, spent just 2 percent of their income on cigarettes.

“Excise taxes are effective in changing smokers’ behavior,” said Matthew Farrelly, Ph.D., chief scientist and senior director of RTI's Public Health Policy Research Program and the study’s lead author. “But not all smokers are able to quit, and low-income smokers are disproportionately burdened by these taxes.”

Despite the high taxes, research indicates people in the lowest income group continue to smoke at a much higher rate than the higher income groups.

According to the paper, while the prevalence of smoking in New York decreased by 20 percent from 2003-2004 to 2009-2010, those with household incomes less than $25,000 had no statistically significant decline in smoking. 

“Special efforts are needed to reduce smoking among those with low incomes," Farrelly said. "States, especially New York, generate significant revenue from cigarette taxes, but only a small percentage of that money is used for tobacco control programs. 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."

The study used data from the New York and national Adult Tobacco Surveys from 2010-2011, which includes more than 13,000 participants.

The study was funded by New York State Health Department.


  • Study finds high cigarette taxes disproportionally burden low-income smokers
  • Low-income smokers in New York spend nearly a quarter of their household income on cigarettes
  • Smokers in the highest income group spend just 2 percent of their income on cigarettes
  • The study was conducted by researchers at RTI International