Feature

Cigarette taxes: Hitting smokers in the wallet

The big boost in the federal excise tax on a pack of cigarettes, from 39 cents to $1.01, is driving smokers' efforts to quit.

Tonette Lancaster, a business-college student in Washington, D.C., had been smoking for half of her 30 years. But she recently slapped a nicotine patch on herself and vowed: Never again. “Cigarettes were $6 a pack and now it’s almost $7,” she explained. “I just said, ‘Enough is enough.’” All across the country, smokers are burning up telephone “quit” lines and enrolling in stop-smoking programs, said David Brown in The Washington Post. What’s driving them to wean themselves from their potentially deadly habit is the big boost in the federal excise tax on a pack of cigarettes, from 39 cents to $1.01. Every time the federal or state governments boost cigarette taxes, said USA Today in an editorial, droves of smokers quit. Given that cigarettes still cause 443,000 premature deaths annually, and cost us $193 billion in health-care expenses and time lost from work, “it’s hard to imagine a tax with a higher upside.” 

Exactly—“so why not add another $5 to the cigarette tax?” asked Michael Daly in the New York Daily News. Here in New York City, a pack of butts now costs about $10, and as a direct result, the rate of smoking among teens is 13.8 percent—far below the 28 percent in Kentucky, where a pack sells for $4.80. If cigarettes were $15 a pack everywhere, we’d save millions of people from a slow, painful death—“a death that makes most other demises seem kind.”

Who are you to decide whether other people light up or not? said Dianne Williamson in the Worcester, Mass., Sunday Telegram. Regardless of what you puritans think, some people—like me—“are just born to smoke.” We are tired of being told what to do with our bodies, and being “drummed from the workplace, from bars, and just about anyplace indoors.” Besides, this new “sin” tax unfairly targets the working poor: 38 percent of smokers make less than $36,000 a year. “Even smokers deserve a fair shake.” Tell you what, said Herschell Gordon Lewis in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. “Let’s agree to cancel any increases in cigarette taxes.” In return, smokers will pledge never to sue Big Tobacco when they get cancer or emphysema. And they’ll promise, in writing, not to ask Medicare or Medicaid or any insurance plan—not to mention all the nonsmokers who support these programs with their taxes and insurance payments—to pay a cent “for their medical costs, hospice, and, ultimately, tombstone.”

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