Federal cigarette tax hike forces smokers to question habit

sarah.oneill

Smokers venturing out to buy their usual pack of cigarettes may have been shocked when the price rang up almost $2 more than usual. It was not a cashier’s mistake, but rather a three-week advancement made by tobacco companies on a federal tax increase effective April 1.

On Febuary 4, President Obama signed a bill reauthorizing the congressional State Children’s Health Insurance Plan (SCHIP), which will increase the number of children receiving government-sponsored health insurance.

To pay for this expansion, the federal tax on tobacco products has been increased. The most substantial tax increase will be on cigarettes, to $1.66 per pack from 39 cents.

Tax on roll-your-own tobacco will also be significant, increased from 7 cents per ounce to $1.53 per ounce. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, the definition will also be expanded to include tobacco that could be used to make cigars. The large increase in roll-your-own tobacco reflects concerns that this tobacco might substitute for cigarettes.

In addition to the federal tax, all 50 states have their own tax on tobacco, averaging $1.19 per pack, but ranging from 7 cents in South Carolina to $2.75 per pack in New York. Michigan’s state tax is $2, one of the highest in the United States.

Although this added cost will put a burden on smokers’ wallets, NMU Health Promotion Specialist Lenny Shible said that only a small amount of people will choose money over their smoking habit. Price-conscious people who are not in control of their own finances, such as teenagers or people without jobs, will be most likely to quit, Shible said.

“Some people with a lack of resources respond to increases on things like alcohol and tobacco by choosing their drug of choice over staple resources, like food, for them and their children,” Shible said.

Instead of being angry over the added cost, many people who smoke are actually in support of the SCHIP bill. Smoker Liz Mitchell, a freshman English writing major, said it is a small price to pay when it comes to the nation’s health care situation.

“Of course I don’t want to pay more for cigarettes,” Mitchell said. “But when you put it in the context of going toward children’s health care, it’s not a bad idea. If you’re a smoker, you’re just paying to kill yourself slowly. We all know the repercussions, and it’s a personal choice.”

Although the increase was not set to happen until April 1, distributors upped the price three weeks in advance to avoid a rush on tobacco products. This means once April rolls around, stores will have to do inventory and pay the extra amount on whatever they have left.

Mason Pearce, owner of the Wright Place, said that while the tax may have placed a burden on his store, he does not anticipate a heavy change in sales.

Not only do stores gain a small part of the generated revenue, Pearce said smokers would rather shell out the extra cash than quit their habit.

“If they’re going to smoke, they’re going to smoke. They may go for cheaper brands, but it’s much too hard of a habit to kick just like that,” he said. “As long as it’s going to something like children’s health care rather than some politician’s salary, I’m alright with it.”

Upon news of the tax increase, the Michigan Department of Community Health (MDCH) announced that they would be offering free nicotine replacement products through their Tobacco Quit Line to assist smokers that wished to quit.

Such a high volume of calls poured in that they were forced to shut the service down.

James McCurtis, spokesperson for the MDCH, said that within five days after opening the phone lines, the MDCH had received approximately 66,000 calls.

The program went through all nicotine replacement products, which included gum, patches and lozenges.

On March 16, the Quit Line announced that it would shut down through the end of September.

“The amount of calls was so overwhelming, it just depleted the budget for that particular program,” McCurtis said.

While the desire to quit may increase, Shible fears smokers’ addiction to Nicotine will ultimately win and smokers will continue to pay a very high cost for their addiction.

He said that although the tax increase is not aimed at getting them to quit, it’s as good a reason as any.

“Some people may see this as forcing people to quit, but it’s impossible to force people to quit . any reason is a good reason, any time is a good time,” Shible said.

“We want students to know we (Health Promotions Office) are here to help.”