Smokers doing slow burn over rising cigarette taxes

Kevin Clifford/Nevada Appeal

Kevin Clifford/Nevada Appeal

Chuck Baker paid more for five cartons of Pall Mall cigarettes than he ever paid before.

He shook his head when he heard the price last week " more than $31 a carton at the Washoe Tribe Smoke Shop in Carson City with the new 62-cent federal tax on a pack of cigarettes.

"I've been smoking for 70 years, and I'm going to be smoking until I drop dead," Baker said, browsing the smoke shop aisles for cheaper tobacco. "I'm going to have a carton of cigarettes put in my casket, preferably from another country without American taxes on it."

The first federal cigarette tax increase since 2002 went into effect April 1. Nevada smokers could see another and larger increase soon, however.

The state tax on a pack of cigarettes will go up $1 if a bill in the Nevada Legislature passes, the first state increase since 2003.

These taxes combined would cost a pack-a-day smoker about $50 extra a month.

The combined taxes also would move Nevada from No. 33 among states to 15 in cigarette taxes per pack, according to the Washington-based nonprofit Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

Baker said the discrimination against smokers, not the price, is what bothers him about paying about $4.50 a pack.

Another $1 tax a pack on top of that might not make cigarettes worth the price, however, he said.

"Then I'll smoke marijuana," he said. "I'm serious."

Ursula Michel, a clerk at the smoke shop, said the new federal tax hasn't slowed business at the store. Customers just cut something else from their budgets or switch to a cheaper brand, she said.

What bothers smokers most is feeling targeted, she said.

"You know how many people want to shoot the government and how many people think the government ought to have their pay lowered?" she asked. "Probably even more than you can count, even if you took your shoes off."

Higher taxes on cigarettes are discriminatory against all smokers, but the taxes hurt the poor most, said Shannon Miles, a smoker and employee at Cigarettes for Less in Carson City.

She said she's had to help several people who are retired or on fixed incomes pay for their cigarettes this month. That's not fair to those people, she said.

"When you stop and think what luxuries there are available to people in poverty, this is one of the only luxuries they have left, that they can afford, and they're taking that away from them," she said.

About 22 percent of Nevadans smoke, higher than the national average of about 21 percent, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The highest rate is in Kentucky at about 28.5 percent. Smoking is more common across the country for people who are poor and people without a college education, according to the CDC.

But cigarette taxes like the proposed tax in Nevada are a fair way to reduce teen smoking and raise taxes for health programs, said Beverly May, Western states director for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

Smokers are a greater cost to society than non-smokers, she said, and there is nothing positive about smoking compared to other risky behaviors.

"This product, the only thing it does is addict people, make them sick and eventually kill them," she said.

Assemblywoman Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, said she introduced Assembly Bill 255 to increase the state cigarette tax based on a request from the American Cancer Society and other groups to help fund health programs for children and pregnant women.

A cigarette tax increase is unlikely to cause a long-term drop in tobacco tax revenue, she said. It will likely reduce smoking and health care costs, she said.

But in light of the recent federal tax increase, Leslie said, $1 more in state cigarette taxes "might be too much."

Assembly Bill 255 sponsored by Assemblywoman Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, would raise the state tax on a pack of cigarettes from 80 cents to $1.80. The tax revenues would fund health programs for children and pregnant women. The bill is now in Assembly Ways and Means Committee. The tax would move Nevada from No. 33 among states to 15 in cigarette taxes per pack.

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