Cigarette Taxes Sweep Nation

N E W  Y O R K, July 1, 2002 -- The price of a pack of cigarettes in New York City jumps to close to $7.50 today — and half the price will be made up of taxes.

That's by far the highest price in the nation, double what someone might pay in Virginia or the Carolinas. It's happening because New York City's excise tax on cigarettes is increasing by $1.42 a pack — a jump of nearly 1,800 percent over the old tax of eight cents.

"Here?" asked one New Yorker. "I can't afford cigarettes for $7.50."

But as New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg explained, that's the idea. Bloomberg said he wants to force smokers either to quit — or help him raise some badly needed revenue.

"What we can do as a society is to make smoking as difficult as possible for people to get addicted," said Mr. Bloomberg at Sunday's signing ceremony. "I would be thrilled if we raised taxes so much that consumption dropped to zero and our tax revenues dropped to zero."

National Trend

"I think I'll end up quitting smoking — hopefully!" said Kyle Lee of New York.

New York may be the largest city with the highest tax, but it's only a follower in a growing American trend. Six states raised their own cigarette taxes effective today, for a total of 13 so far this year, and more than a dozen others are debating the issue.

Kurt Ribisl, a professor of public health at the University of North Carolina, says so-called "sin" taxes really do work — whether on tobacco, alcohol or anything else.

"You serve two goals: you raise substantial revenue, and you can also reduce the public health burden of smoking," he says. "Generally, when the price goes up 10 percent, there's a 4 percent reduction in smoking in adults, and a 7 percent reduction in smoking in youth."

‘Taxation Without Representation’

Understandably, many smokers choke at the idea of being taxed for their own good.

"This is more of a persecution than it is a raise in revenue," says Audrey Silk. She formed a group called CLASH — Citizens Lobbying Against Smoker Harassment. "Why is it on the backs of smokers that we have to pay for something that benefits everybody else?"

Tobacco companies are quick to join the fight. They point out that smokers tend to be lower-income, and easy prey for politicians who face budget deficits.

"If you're looking at something to raise taxes on," says John Singleton of R.J. Reynolds, "it's a relatively easy vote to say let's raise it on smokers, because these are folks who are a minority of the population, and nobody's going to ride to their rescue."

Some people will get around the tax by ordering online, but researchers say that's only 5 percent of the market.

So, generally, politicians say smokers will have to put their cigarettes out — or pay up.