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In tight times, consumers cut the cost, if not the quantity, of their vices

Al Brassard, manager of the Tobacco Depot in Lutz, demonstrates how a machine to make cigarettes works. Stores such as Brassard’s are reporting an increase in cost-conscious customers buying machines and loose tobacco.

MIKE PEASE | Times

Al Brassard, manager of the Tobacco Depot in Lutz, demonstrates how a machine to make cigarettes works. Stores such as Brassard’s are reporting an increase in cost-conscious customers buying machines and loose tobacco.

We all have our vices, the staples uniquely our own that we feel we need to get through life. A fine whiskey. Cigar in the evening. Cigarette breaks. Haagen-Dazs. Organic produce. Starbucks. Salmon.

But the economy is tight. Though not officially in a recession yet, as the economy grew at a rate of 0.6 percent in January through March, times are still tough. So we start cooking at home. We actually consider using the coupons in the newspaper, rather than trashing them. As gas prices soar and our usual products become more expensive, we look for ways to cheaply maintain our vices.

"We just change how we eat it and what we eat, but we don't change the quantity of what we eat," said Tim Ramey, who follows the food and beverage industry for D.A. Davidson, on American Public Media's Marketplace radio show Wednesday.

"Otherwise, we would all collectively lose weight every recession, and that never happens."

On a recent day at the Tobacco Depot in Zephyrhills, the store was packed; the checkout line a half dozen people deep. Tobacco stores in Pasco County are reporting fewer people buying big brand cigarettes, such as Marlboro, which can be $3 a pack or more, and switching to such generic brands as Skydancer, which can be as cheap as a dollar and some change. Even more people are buying cigarette rolling machines, which can run from about $8 to more than $50. After purchasing a bag or canister of tobacco and filters, a carton of handmade cigarettes can cost $7 to $14, depending on the quality of tobacco.

"I had three people come in and buy machines this morning," a cashier said at the Zephyrhills store. "We opened at 9 a.m. and now it's a quarter to 12."

At another Tobacco Depot, this one in Lutz, store manager Al Brassard has been coaching newbies on how to use the machines. Brassard quit smoking for 12 years, but a divorce drove him back to his vice. Even though money is scarce, he's still buying Marlboros because he can't find the time to roll his own.

"I've got a machine at home collecting dust," he said.

At ABC Fine Wine & Spirits in Zephyrhills, assistant manager Travis Smith said the regulars are still coming in, but not buying as much when they do.

"They're still buying the same quality," Smith said. "But not the same quantity."

Richard Kilmer, an economist at the University of Florida, said good can come out of hard times. We can think of all of this in a positive way and use this to take a harsh look at our lifestyles and to see what we truly need.

"What vices are hurting us?" he said. "We could cut back on drinking. Be healthier. Reduce our food consumption."

Kilmer, who is 64 and grew up on a farm in Indiana, said he is an optimist. He believes in Americans' ability to adapt.

"During this time, it definitely takes self-discipline," he said. "It's a time to make adjustments."

Lou Search and his wife have owned the Tobacco Hut in New Port Richey for 24 years. Usually, his regulars would come in each Saturday to stock up on their cigars for the week, from a few up to 10 or so. He hasn't seen many of them for a while. But Search understands.

"If it comes down to buying a loaf of bread for your kids or buying a cigar," Search said, "Buy the bread. There's no question about that."

Erin Sullivan can be reached at esullivan@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4609.

In tight times, consumers cut the cost, if not the quantity, of their vices 05/04/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 6, 2008 2:02pm]
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