M-RCBG Faculty Working Paper No. 2010-06

Consumer Response to Cigarette Excise Tax Changes

Lesley Chiou and Erich J. Muehlegger

May 2010

Abstract

We use a rich dataset of weekly cigarette sales to examine how consumers adapt their behavior before and after excise tax increases - whether by reducing demand, stockpiling, traveling to low-tax jurisdictions, or substituting towards lower-cost brands. Consumer response varies substantially for different types of cigarettes. Stockpiling primarily occurs for discount cigarettes and is most pronounced at stores far from lower-tax jurisdictions. Border-crossing is greatest at stores close to low-tax jurisdictions and occurs primarily for cigarettes sold by the carton. Finally, we find modest short-run substitution towards lower-cost brands following a tax-increase, consistent with consumers smoothing the transition to higher cigarette taxes. These differences in consumer behavior lead to meaningful differences in tax incidence - pass-through is higher for discount cigarettes which have more inelastic demand. Pass-through is lower near low-tax borders, especially for cigarettes sold by the carton for which cross-border evasion is greatest.

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