A heavier cost to lighting up


SARASOTA – Of all the impediments thrown at smokers over the years, the one that arrives today could have one of the biggest impacts. Florida’s cigarette tax, long among the nation’s lowest, in keeping with its Southern neighbors, is rising by $1 per pack.

Combined with a 62-cent-per-pack federal increase that took effect just 12 weeks ago, cigarettes in Florida are now pushing $6 per pack — a price that is proving persuasive even to longtime smokers.

“I think the government is putting a real burden on the backs of smokers,” Gerry Nodeen, who started smoking in the 1970s, said Tuesday outside a Sarasota smoke shop. “I’ll probably think about quitting instead of paying the extra money.”

The American Cancer Society estimates the tax will reduce youth smoking rates by nearly 20 percent and convince nearly 350,000 Floridians of all ages to quit. Ultimately, it will save 100,000 lives, the organization estimated, saving the state $5 billion in health care costs.

But saving lives is not the only reason that the Florida Legislature approved the increase this spring. The tax is expected to generate $900 million a year for the state, helping to plug a multibillion-dollar budget shortfall.

The state increase includes a $1- per-ounce increase on smokeless tobacco and pipe tobacco. Lawmakers exempted cigars, citing the importance of the tradition-rich industry in Tampa and South Florida.

The higher tobacco tax is one of several new revenue sources needed to pay for the $66.5 billion in spending during the budget year that starts today. Others include $5.3 billion in federal stimulus money and about $1 billion in fee increases. A conforming law has already gone into effect to raise court filing fees.

A wide range of motor vehicle fees will not go on the books until Sept. 1.

But while health advocates and many lawmakers herald the tax as long overdue, smokers and those in the business of smoking were in no celebratory mood.

“I’ve never seen an increase like this in such a tough economic time,” Andy Patel, who runs Deep Discount Tobacco on Lime Avenue, said Tuesday. “The prices are sky high now.”

For nearly two decades, Patel built a business selling cigarettes at sale prices. But since the start of this year, sales have dipped by about 70 percent.

Patel fears today will mark the beginning of the end for his shop.

For smokers such as Neil Nunez, 31, of Sarasota, the state increase on top of the federal one means he is now paying $5.50 a pack, nearly five times as much as when he started smoking at the age of 18.

“I think this tax will deter anybody who wants to pick up smoking,” he said. “But for people who already smoke, I don’t think it will be enough to make them quit.”

Nunez said he is considering switching from brand cigarettes to rolling his own.

“If you roll them yourself, you pay about half what you’d pay in a store,” Nunez said.

Not anymore. The federal tax on roll-your-own tobacco increased from $1 a pound to more than $24 a pound in April.

That effectively marginalized any big savings smokers can expect by rolling their own products.

That leaves committed smokers few options.

Tobacco companies say the extra tax will drive Floridians to purchasing the product on the black market, over the Internet or in neighboring low-tax states. Prices in Georgia will be nearly $1 a pack less than in Florida and South Carolina will sell a pack for around $1.25 less than in Florida.

David Sutton is a spokesman for Altria, parent company of Phillip Morris, said that after tax increases took effect in New York, nearly one-third of regular tobacco users said they regularly took steps to avoid the tax by purchasing the product tax-free on the Internet or at Indian reservations.

He said that consumer shift would make Florida’s promise of nearly $1 billion in annual revenues from the tax increase unrealistic.

Ossie Rometo, owner of the Smoke Shop in Sarasota, agreed. He said many consumers are unaware that the state tax increase is coming. After today, he said, a black market will pick up.

“We’re going to see bootleggers coming down to Florida from Alabama and Georgia, where prices are lower,” Rometo predicted.

One avenue will not be available: Indian “smoke shops” that sell cigarettes tax-free in Florida will receive a credit to be used to offset the taxes incurred by tribe members who buy the cigarettes. But the state will still collect taxes on cigarettes sold to non-tribe members.

Meanwhile, health experts say, the price increase will be an deterrent, particularly for young smokers.

In 2006, 20 percent of Sarasota County high school students smoked; the state rate was 15 percent.

“Historically, the population that is most sensitive to a price increase is the youth, so every time the price goes up 10 percent, we see a decrease in youth smoking by about 4 percent,” said Crystal Bruce, tobacco prevention specialist for the Sarasota County Health Department. “We also see an increase in quitting attempts.”

To further this cause, the state of Florida provides free resources, including telephone-based coaching and nicotine replacement therapy (patches, gum and lozenges) for anyone desiring to kick the smoking habit.

Dr. Kirk Voelker, who runs a stop-smoking business in Sarasota, said that he expects his clientele to grow substantially after today.

“It takes something to turn on that little light bulb inside your head to where you say, ‘It’s not worth it anymore,'” Voelker said. “It often takes a tax increase to wake people up.”

Joe Follick of the H-T Capital Bureau contributed to this story.

source:  http://www.heraldtribune.com

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