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Higher cigarette tax may be incentive to quit smoking

“It was 30 cents a pack when I started smoking,” said Carol Shier, left, in St. Petersburg. Her brand, Misty, rings up as $35.64 for a carton. Smoke Cheap/Metro PCS store manager Eva Roberts offers her a Main Street Ultra Light 100s to try at $14.97 a carton.

MELISSA LYTTLE | Times

“It was 30 cents a pack when I started smoking,” said Carol Shier, left, in St. Petersburg. Her brand, Misty, rings up as $35.64 for a carton. Smoke Cheap/Metro PCS store manager Eva Roberts offers her a Main Street Ultra Light 100s to try at $14.97 a carton.

Linda Loud picked up her first cigarette when she was 12 and lighting up was the thing to do.

Her father caught her. Loud didn't pick up a cigarette again until she was 21.

Since then, the 54-year-old has smoked about a pack every two days. That changed recently when she went to pick up some Virginia Slims.

Her cigarettes, usually $34 a carton, had jumped $10.

"That's when I decided this is enough," said Loud, an administrative assistant for a St. Petersburg property management company. "I can't afford this."

Experts predict many others also will try to ditch the habit because of a new federal cigarette tax.

Officials estimate 1.2 million smokers — more than 75,000 from Florida — will quit because of the tax, which increases the total federal cigarette tax 62 cents to $1.01 per pack starting April 1.

Antismoking advocates are lauding the tax increase as a significant victory for public health.

"For every 10 percent increase in price, you get about a 4 percent reduction in overall consumption," said Frank Chaloupka, an economics professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Chaloupka, who has studied the issue for more than 20 years, said raising cigarette prices works better than things like restaurant smoking bans or media campaigns.

"A big tax increase like this is the single most effective policy for reducing smoking," Chaloupka said. "(And) this is by far the biggest increase we've ever seen."

The federal excise tax on tobacco has been hiked sporadically over the last several decades, going from about 8 cents in the 1950s to 39 cents in 2002.

The money raised from this latest tax increase, which was signed into law Feb. 4, will extend health care to 4 million uninsured children under the State Children's Health Insurance Program, known as SCHIP.

Although the increase wasn't specifically designed as a method to decrease smoking, experts say it is a significant side benefit.

Danny McGoldrick, vice president of research for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said antismoking advocates around the country are preparing for the influx of people trying to quit.

Agencies are busy making sure they have the resources for cessation classes and staffing to operate quit lines, he said.

In addition, an estimated 1.5 million kids — 137,000 in Florida — could be deterred from picking up the habit because it costs too much, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

And experts say these numbers could rise even higher if Florida, which currently has one of the country's lowest tobacco taxes, raises its own state tax later this year.

Lawmakers this week proposed raising the state tax, currently 34 cents, by $1 as a possible solution to this year's budget crisis.

"The higher the price, the better we are," McGoldrick said. "Healthier communities are better off economically."

Florida stands to save $3.1 billion in future health care savings because of the tax increase, he said.

Despite the optimism of health experts and antismoking advocates, some aren't convinced.

Carol Shier, who began smoking 40 years ago, said she opted to switch to a less pricey brand of cigarettes last week instead of quitting outright.

The tobacco increase will just force smokers to make sacrifices in other areas of life, Shier said.

"I think if they want to smoke they're going to find the money," she said.

Chaloupka, the tobacco tax expert, said that notion may have been accepted 20 years ago, but things have changed.

And given today's economic climate, that perception is probably even less realistic, he said.

"Even addicts respond to changes in prices," Chaloupka said.

Just look at Loud.

With the money she would have spent on cigarettes, Loud bought a pack of Commit Lozenges. She's been using the tablets to suppress her craving for nicotine.

"I'm just trying to cut back, wean myself off," she said. "It's a hard thing to do. But with everything else going up, I can't afford this."

Higher cigarette tax may be incentive to quit smoking 03/24/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 25, 2009 6:43am]
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