The cigarette tax and human behavior

According to the CDC, roughly 20% of the American population, some 43 million people, smoke (and within that group 80% smoke every day).  That number is down significantly from just a few decades ago, but the rate of decline has leveled off in recent years.  Some attribute the slow-down to creative marketing tactics by the tobacco companies (such as cigarettes marketed to women in pink packages) while others blame the Bush Administration for not making tobacco control a priority.  The most likely reason is money — the price of cigarettes has not changed significantly in the last few years, so people don’t have that extra incentive to quit.

Beginning today, however, the price of cigarettes is going to jump, significantly, as the new federal cigarette tax goes into effect.  The tax, which President Obama signed in February, will raise the tax on tobacco products from 39 cents a pack to $1.01.  As many as a dozen states are consider additional taxes as well, to help generate much needed income.  Before the tax hike, cigarette prices averaged about $5 a pack.  While some tobacco companies will absorb part of the tax to offset increases, prices across the board will go up.  As the prices go up, the number of people who smoke is expected to go down — significantly.

So what?

The health risks associated with smoking are widely known – and yet apparently aren’t compelling enough to compel the last 20% of Americans to kick the habit.  A simple tax, however, will push people past that tipping point.  What’s the lesson here?

Behavior change is tough, but necessary if you want to have a real impact.  Quitting smoking is a significant change someone’s life.  Could you give up something that is a regular part of your day — never eat breakfast again, or never turn on your television?  For smokers, beginning the process of quitting is not that difficult – most smokers say they have tried to quit, but couldn’t follow through.  Those who do quit, and stay that way, acknowledge that many aspects of their life change, not just the fact that they no longer light up.

Along the same lines, the holy grail of organizing – community, political or otherwise – is getting people to take action.  All the better if that action is directed towards some specific action that helps you meet your goals, and therefore becomes both meaningful and measurable.  Getting someone to act once is easy — its getting them to act a second time, and beyond, that is really tough.  To get people to take action, you have to make it easy for them to act, give them some direction and support, and make sure the incentive is clear (see next point).  But even that isn’t enough sometimes.

And that is why this tobacco tax provides an important lesson for us all.

Smokers are fully aware of the health risks associated with cigarettes, and all the other negative social aspects as well.  For those who continue to smoke, none of these reasons are compelling enough so that someone will commit to kicking the habit.  But when you add on a significant financial penalty for continuing to smoke, people’s resolve to quit grows much stronger, much faster.

Will that lesson translate to behavior change in other areas?  I don’t know.

My experience in organizing suggests that there are limitations to people’s commitment to action, no matter how compelling the issue or sophisticated the tool set we provide to support them.  I have been a part of hundreds of campaigns over the years, about a wide range of issues, and never been able to move a significant number of people to a new set of behaviors.  I can get people to click on something or sign a petition, show up for an event, or maybe call their elected officials and advocate for a cause… once.  The more times you ask, the lower the rate of participation becomes (and no, a financial incentive nor a penalty, have proven to be enough).  In the digital age, organizations so often push tools as the solution to major challenges, but that seems to me to get us further away from uncovering the real solution.

I am thinking about this challenge while watching Organizing for America (OFA) try to mobilize the public to support President Obama’s budget.  According to an article in Congress Daily, the campaign is not having much of an impact.  I’m not surprised. OFA seems to be using the same playbook they did during the Obama campaign — take a big list, email it asking for help, direct and facilitate action, and hope for a great response.  Governing is not campaigning, and urging the passage of a huge budget package is not as compelling as helping to elect a truly transformational candidate.  I think OFA will have to re-think the strategy for how they educate, engage, and mobilize people around these types of big policy challenges — and my gut says the centerpiece of the effort won’t be a media/promotional effort, but rather something much more community driven (I wrote about this for the WeMedia conference, FYI).

I have never smoked a cigarette in my life — haven’t taken so much as a drag.  I think its a disgusting habit which has the added benefit of causing any number of life-shortening health problems.  Further, I have never understood why people start smoking or why, knowing that cigarettes can/will kill you, they don’t stop (and yes, I understand that cigarettes are addictive, that nicotine makes you feel energized and alert, that peer pressure plays a big role, along with family history, education level and income, and of course, the process of quitting can be very difficult).  I’m not some crazy anti-smoking advocate either — though I do think our society would probably be better off without people lighting up everywhere.   I am curious though.  I want to understand what really drives people to smoke, and what drives people to stop smoking — and how that might translate to everything else.  The shift in our society’s behavior that results from this tobacco tax, no matter what it is, will yield some important lessons.  I can’t wait to see what they are.

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