On a recent afternoon, Lynn Lombardi stepped out of the Day Spa in Southington for a sidewalk smoke. A Prospect resident, Lombardi was there with her daughter, Jessica, who was to be married the following day. Lombardi was taking a break from getting “gussied up for the big day” to smoke a Newport.
Lombardi’s been a cigarette smoker for 33 years, starting when she was 13. She smokes about a pack a day, usually taking two or three puffs before tossing the cigarette away.
Her habit is about to get even more expensive.
On Thursday, the state tax on cigarettes will increase by a dollar, from $2 to $3 for a pack of 20, or from 10 cents to 15 cents for each cigarette. The increase makes Connecticut second only to Rhode Island, where the state tax is $3.46 per pack.
Connecticut increased the per-pack cigarette tax from 50 cents to $1.11 in 2002, added another 40 cents in 2003 and raised the tax again, to $2 a pack, in 2007.
None of this has kept Lombardi from smoking, and she doesn’t expect the $3-per-pack tax to stop her now.
“It’s not going to affect me,” she said. “I’ll still buy the cigarettes.”
Lombardi tried to quit smoking not too long ago during a hospital stay, with the help of a nicotine patch, but “when I got out, I decided that I did not want to quit smoking.
“I don’t know if I could quit just yet,” she continued. “I’ve been smoking for so long, I don’t know if I could think of myself without a cigarette.”
Across Center Street from the Day Spa, Paul E. Raczynski runs “Fire N Smoke,” a shop that specializes in cigars, other tobacco products and, somewhat incongruously, hot sauce. Cigar sales make up about 95 percent of his business, he said.
On Thursday, the state tax on those tobacco products will increase from 20 percent to 27 percent. The price of the only cigarettes Raczynski sells, American Spirit, will rise from $8 to $9 a pack.
Many cigar enthusiasts smoke just one or two a week, but there are others who puff anywhere from six to a dozen a day, said Raczynski, who was preparing for his second annual party, an all-you-can eat, all-the-beer-you-can-drink Cigar B-Que for an anticipated 70 participants. The entertainer George Burns enjoyed 12 to 15 cigars a day, Raczynski pointed out, “and he lived to be over 100.”
“Probably,” said Raczynski, when he was asked if the tax increase would hurt his sales. “It’s going to hurt the manufacturers, I think, more than it’s going to hurt me.”
“Enough is enough”
The tax increase on tobacco products was part of the overall state budget, the resolution to a standoff between Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell and the Democrat-controlled legislature over closing a projected multibillion-dollar deficit, and there are lawmakers who say they would not have voted to approve it as a standalone bill.
“I think at this point it’s too punitive,” said state Rep. Emil “Buddy” Altobello, D-Meriden.
Though he voted to approve the budget, state Rep. Joe Aresimowicz, a Berlin Democrat whose district includes part of Southington, considers the tax regressive because it targets those low on the income scale. “We keep going back to the same area,” he said.
“I think the smokers will tell you that enough is enough,” Aresimowicz said.
He kicked the nicotine habit a few months ago, he said, after 15 years of on-and-off smoking that never reached more than five cigarettes a day. He quit with the help of the medication Chantix. Among the motivations was his work with youth groups and his desire to set an example.
“It always worried me that if they saw me, it wouldn’t be sending the right message,” he said.
Advocates say the tax increase will help deter youngsters from picking up the habit and discourage young smokers because it’s become so expensive.
But there are those who feel it’s not right to tax cigarettes without spending at least some of the money raised on smoking-cessation initiatives.
The hope was that some of the money would go toward programs like nicotine replacement therapy for Medicaid patients, “and that just hasn’t happened,” said Margaret R. LaCroix, a spokeswoman for the American Lung Association of New England.
“I go further and call it immoral and unjust,” said Dr. Patricia Checko, an epidemiologist who is chairwoman of the coalition MATCH, which stands for Mobilize Against Tobacco for Connecticut Health. The coalition includes the American Cancer Society, the American Lung Association and the American Heart Association.
Studies indicate that for every 10 percent tax increase on cigarettes, there’s an overall decrease in consumption of 3 percent to 5 percent, and 6.5 percent among young-adult smokers.
“The group we have the biggest effect on when we raise taxes is youth,” said Checko.
Those heavily addicted, however, will “give up other things just to feed the habit,” she said. “That’s a very serious issue for those on the low-income level.”
The smoking level among those on Medicaid is 45 percent, said Checko.
“The other reason to look at Medicaid clients is that these are the people who will have the greatest health costs down the road,” she said.
Smoking is more prevalent among those on lower education and income levels, “so the people who need it the most have no access,” Checko said.
The coalition is calling for $9 million of the money raised by the tax increase each year – by some estimates, that will be as high as nearly $100 million the first year – to go toward cessation efforts, including $5 million for a statewide telephone quit line.
“We’re very concerned that they might not be funded at all, and this is something that has been shown to work very well,” said Checko, adding that “given the economic times, it’s going to be difficult.”
Difficult economic times called for difficult decisions.
“Did we want to tax cigarette smokers particularly? No,” said House Majority Leader Christopher G. Donovan, D-Meriden. “Are we happy about that? No.
“We have a budget that funds a lot of things that smokers use, too,” he continued. “The state General Fund does things that smokers use. We fund Medicaid, so to say it doesn’t go to smokers – it does, but not to all smokers.”
The smoking rate among adults in Connecticut is 18 percent, or about 450,000 people, with the rate among high school students at 21 percent, Checko said.
The Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids applauded the state tax increase because it will help keep an estimated 24,000 state youth from turning into addicted smokers. But the state is missing an opportunity by not directing the funds toward Medicaid cessation programs, said Kevin O’Flaherty, director of advocacy for the organization’s northeast region. Funding for Medicaid would be matched by federal dollars, he said.
“They’re leaving something on the table,” he said. “They could get so much more out of it.”
Connecticut, now with the second highest cigarette tax, remains one of just a few states that do not provide Medicaid smoking-cessation coverage, and it ranks low in prevention funding in general. The other states that provide no tobacco prevention services at all under Medicaid are Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Missouri and Tennessee.
Connecticut’s attorney general, Richard Blumenthal, called the tax increase “egregiously regressive.”
“I supported a cigarette tax increase only if some of the revenue would be used for smoking cessation programs, because I believe that forcing people who are addicted to nicotine to pay higher taxes is blatantly unfair and ineffective if we fail to provide help to those in breaking that addiction,” he said.
Connecticut continues to use little of the more than $100 million a year it receives from the settlement with tobacco companies, which Blumenthal signed in 1998, on smoking cessation or prevention.
Connecticut’s tax increase will put the average state tax on cigarettes at $1.34 a pack, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. South Carolina has the lowest state cigarette tax rate, at seven cents a pack.
South Carolina funds smoking-cessation therapies under Medicaid, including the patch and Chantix, though coverage does not include individual or group counseling. Rhode Island, the highest taxing state, provides Medicaid funding for all cessation therapies, including counseling.
South Carolina is also one of just four states not to have raised the tax on cigarettes since 2000. The others are California, Missouri and North Dakota.