State Politics

Smokers say new tax will create quitters

Maria Charlton took a drag on a Kool cigarette Tuesday just outside the Broward County Courthouse, savoring one of her last smokes ever. When the state tax on cigarettes jumps a buck to $1.34 a pack Wednesday, Charlton is going cold turkey.

“I’m not paying a whole more dollar for cigarettes,” snapped Charlton, 45, of Pembroke Pines. “It’s not worth it to me.”

Smokers like Charlton are feeling picked on lately. The 294 percent increase in the state excise tax follows a 159 percent increase in the federal cigarette tax, from about 39 cents to $1.01 a pack, on April 1. That’s in addition to some Big Tobacco companies raising prices by more than 40 cents a pack earlier this year. Now, with the latest hike, smokers will see some of their favorite name-brand smokes costing $5 to $6 or more a pack.

Smokers can no longer dodge the tax by buying cigarettes on an Indian reservation, either. Under the new law, nontribe members buying smokes on an Indian reservation have to pay the full tax.

Bradenton’s Angela Freeman believes that the tax will have an immediate impact. She’s cut her one and a half pack a day habit in half in preparation for the tax.

Bill Soronen of Gulfport said that although he smokes, he appreciates the tax increase.

“I think it’s good – if we can get revenue out if it it can go into things like education,” Soronen said. “I already pay taxes anyway, who cares. It’s another buck, outta sight, outta mind.”

The cost increase, he noted, won’t stop him from smoking.

“I wish I could quit,” the 30-year-old said. “ I’ve heard others say if it goes up anymore they’re going to quit , but even when it got raised the first time, they didn’t’ quit.

Brad Rimes, 27, of Wauchula, who works for Prime Environmental Landscaping of Myakka City, said the higher tax won't change his habits, either.

“It doesn’t matter how much they cost if you want one,” said Rimes, who said he has smoked since he was 16. “It kind of makes me want them more now that they’ve gone up.”

Myakka City’s Christine Wasley, a non-smoker, was excited about the tax.

“I’m glad because kids won’t be able to get them so easily,” she said.

Every morning at Interstate-75 and State Road 64, Phillip Uralil, a clerk at the Dash-In Citgo, waits on his regular customers, who dash in for a pack of smokes on the way to work.

Over the past month or so, Uralil has been reminding them that they should stock up.

He has about 50 regulars and not one bought extra in preparation for today’s hike, he said.

“That tells me that they are probably not caring about going to an American Indian store or quitting,” Uralil said.

Uralil’s Marlboro smokers, and there are many he said, will be paying $5.59 plus tax , more than $6, for a pack today.

“I have one regular who said he would pay $8 a pack,” Uralil said.

While he was talking, one of his regulars, Dwight Taylor, who cooks chicken across the street at Kentucky Fried Chicken on State Road 64 and I-75, dashed in for a pack of Newports. He paid $4.78 plus tax. Today he will pay $5.64 plus tax.

Will he quit?

“Me?” Taylor said. “I doubt it.”

Reformed smoker Ann Veith of Sarasota was also delighted.

“There won’t be as much smoke in the air, it will put money in the economy, it will cut down on secondary smoke and it will help health care insurance,” Veith said. “It’s a no-brainer.”

While the tax hike is expected to encourage some smokers to quit, the state expects the higher tax will generate about $900 million a year to help treat sick smokers. Gov.

Gov. Charlie Crist signed the bill in May, reversing a pledge not to raise taxes. Crist said at the time he viewed the increase “more as a health issue than . . . a tax issue.”

Some smokers remain skeptical that state lawmakers are looking out for smokers’ health.

“If they don’t want people to buy cigarettes, why do they still have them on the shelves?” fumed Adelina Kodra, a hairdresser, after buying two packs of Skydancer cigarettes at the Seminole Hollywood Trading Post on 441. “Why not make it illegal?” She then answered her own question: “It’s too much money. It’s not about people.”

Said state Rep. Jim Waldman, a Coconut Creek Democrat and the House sponsor of the bill: “I would make it illegal if I could. This is the next best thing.”

Rep. Waldman said his father’s death was caused by nearly 60 years of smoking. “We buried him with a pack of cigarettes in his coffin,” he recalled. “I sponsored this with the sole purpose of trying to reduce teen smoking,” he explained. “The reason it passed is because of the financial situation the state is in now. I did it as a healthcare initiative.”

Two local doctors said the benefits of quitting smoking are obvious.

“Any effort to discourage or thwart cigarette smoking is something that we look at favorably,” said Dr. Marc J. Yacht, Manatee County Health Department’s interim director. “It’s quite clear that there are just a multitude of health problems associated with it.”

Dr. John Peters, a pulmonary physician who practices in Manatee County, said 90 percent of his patients have tobacco-related illnesses like emphysema , lung cancer and bronchitis.

“Because I see my patients so much, they become my friends and it makes me angry at the source of their disabilities, and the source is tobacco,” Peters said. “I want to see it eradicated and removed from society.”

The take-home message, he said, is that not only will the tax increase generate revenue for the state, it will discourage people from continuing to smoke.

“And that will translate into lives saved,” Peters said.

Cigarette consumption drops 6 percent to 7 percent among minors for every 10 percent increase in the price of a pack, said Eric Lindblom, policy research director for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. The decline is 3 percent to 5 percent for adults, he said.

Florida now has the 22nd-highest tax in the nation -- above the national average of $1.29 a pack, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids reports. Before the increase, Florida had the fifth lowest tax. “That’s a big step Florida is taking,” Lindblom said.

David Sutton, spokesman for Philip Morris USA, maker of Marlboro, Benson & Hedges and other brands, was dubious the tax increase would generate the revenue projected by the state. Of 57 changes in cigarettes taxes around the country between 2003 and 2007, only 16 met or exceeded projections, he said. “Raising the excise tax on revenue is an unreliable revenue stream for states, particularly when they are trying to use that revenue to fund important government programs or look to fill budget gaps,” he said. Increases in cigarette taxes in other states have led to smuggling and illegal sales on the Internet, Sutton added.

Florida Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco agents will work with counterparts in Georgia and Alabama to prevent smuggling, said Marie Carpenter, bureau chief of auditing for the agency. It also plans to educate Internet cigarettes sellers on collecting the excise tax.

Shop owners are worried the new tax could hit their businesses hard, if the recent 62-cents-a-pack increase in the federal tax is any indication. The federal tax covers the cost of expanding a program for children who lack health insurance.

“They don’t buy that much anymore,” lamented Emre Pars, part owner of Miami’s Bayside Cigars, where sales have fallen 30 percent this year.

Pars hopes customers won’t kick the habit as a result of the latest increase. “I don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said. “It won’t drive us out of business, but it’s definitely not good.”

What impact the increase will have on sales by the Seminoles couldn’t be determined. A spokesman didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Hollywood resident Ira Bagels, who left the Seminole Hollywood Trading Post with three cartons of Romy cigarettes in a plastic bag Tuesday, was steamed over the pending tax increase.

“I think if the government is going to price us out of smoking cigarettes, they should pay for a stop-smoking program,” Bagels, 62, said. “We’re subsidizing everyone else. Subsidize the smokers. Help us quit.”

Herald staff writer Richard Dymond contributed to this report.

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