Tax may go up $1 on pack of cigarettes

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 18, 2011

By Shelley Smith
Smokers across Rowan County are fired up about the possibility of the cost of a pack of cigarettes increasing by $1, and some even say they’ll start growing their own tobacco if North Carolina House Bill 341 is passed.
“I’m going to do it regardless of what they do, even if I have to buy tobacco seeds and grow it myself,” Shane Allman said of the proposed increase. “I’ll cut it up as I need it, and roll it up as I need it. That way I can throw my middle finger up at the government.”
Allman, a 33-year-old employee of Tobacco Discount on South Main Street, is going on his 13th year of smoking. He said the increase would hurt North Carolina’s economy.
“People are going to lose jobs,” he said. “They’re already subsidizing the farmers, and then the governments are collecting tens of millions of dollars in taxes.
“Those Democrats aren’t really out for the small guy like they claim.”
The bill, sponsored by House Democrats — including Larry Womble of R.J. Reynolds’ base, Forsyth County — proposes the tax to “protect health and prevent death, disability, and disease among North Carolina residents,” and is also aimed at lowering the number of teenage smokers by 15.4 percent, preventing 81,200 children becoming adult smokers, and saving 39,100 children and teens from smoking-related deaths, the bill says.
Natalie Gray, youth tobacco prevention manager for the Rowan County Health Department, says the bill is a “win-win-win solution” as states “face a severe fiscal crisis and work to balance budgets while preserving essential public services.”
“Tobacco tax increases are one of the most effective ways to reduce smoking and other tobacco use, especially among kids,” Gray said.
But N.C. Rep. Fred Steen, R-Rowan, and N.C. Sen. Andrew Brock, R-Rowan/Davie, are sure the bill won’t get past the House.
Steen said Thursday that the bill goes against what he and others promised voters last year.
“We were just saying we were going to balance the budget without increasing taxes,” he said. “I’m not going to vote for it.
“I think it’s an uphill battle for any kind of tax … I don’t think this is a good year for any taxes to be put on the table.”
Like Steen, Brock said he ran on a pledge of no new taxes, and said the estimated $272.5 million in revenue from the tax wouldn’t be used for the right reasons, anyway.
The Golden LEAF funds, Brock said, brought “millions and millions” into the state, and were to be used to help tobacco-dependent regions.
“But it’s turned into a slush fund,” Brock said. “So even if there was a tax, what’s to say this money will be used for the right reasons?
“We can’t tax ourselves into prosperity or better days when we have spending that’s been out of control for so many years here in Raleigh … The same people proposing the tax are the same people that put us in this budget hole.”
And Brock, Steen and several Rowan residents all agree that $1 more for a pack of cigarettes won’t stop a teenager from smoking.
“I haven’t seen them go without anything they wanted — cars, cell phones, toys,” Steen said of today’s teens. “If they want it, they’re going to get it.”
Brock said the $1 wouldn’t be a deterrent.
“You’re looking at clothes, shoes and looking at applications for other things, like telephones, that are 99 cents apiece, that are geared for teenagers,” he said. “A dollar to a teenager is not what a dollar was when I was a teenager, or even older. To them, a dollar is almost no importance, so I really don’t see it as a great deterrent.”
Dave Biggs, a smoker, said teenagers have been smoking since the first cigarette was created.
“We’re only being human,” he said. “There’s nobody pushing us to do it, we’re all doing it on our own.
“People are 21 years old and coming into stores like this and buying cigarettes. If we get sick it’s our own fault. We don’t need the government telling us what to do. They’ve got too many things to worry about right now.”
China Grove resident David Faw was at Discount Tobacco on South Main Street Wednesday afternoon purchasing tobacco that he inserts into a cigarette tube at home, and is more affordable than a $5 pack of cigarettes.
Faw, who used to work at Phillip Morris, said the first cigarette tax increase “pretty much killed us.”
“They’re going to kill our cash crop,” he said. “I think it’s unfair. There’s just as much noxious gas coming out of these cars out there than there is in (tobacco).
“They don’t tax beer or alcohol because the politicians like to party.”
Faw said he doesn’t think the tax will make people quit.
“What is this tax representing?” he asked. “Just like the education lottery, where does that money go?
“There’s people out there killing themselves with beer and liquor.”
Brock and Steen said the tax could impact North Carolina and Rowan County’s economy.
Steen said the tax could impact the private sector. He’s not sure how many Rowan farmers raise tobacco, but he says the tax will impact folks putting the cigarettes on the shelves.
And Brock said a new tax could force R.J. Reynolds out of the state. “Do they want to run the industry that built North Carolina, do they want to run them out of town?” he said.
Both Brock and Steen are sure it won’t pass.
“What’s too high,” Steen said of the tax. “Why stop at a dollar? Why not just outlaw it?
“I don’t think this is the proper way to go about it.”
Most popular cigarette at Tobacco Discount: Marlboro Lights
Cost of one pack of Marlboro Lights with tax: $4.86
Cost of one carton (10 packs) of Marlboro Lights: $45.08
The cheapest cigarettes: $22.99 per carton
What others are saying about the tax
• Patricia Andrews, Faith: “Wow, I pay $4.50 for a pack now and I can’t imagine having to pay more … I guess it will be time to quit.
“As far as teenagers go, I don’t think that’s going to stop them from smoking. They will do what most teenagers do and have their parents give them money or have them buy them.”
• Glen Yost, Salisbury: “I wish they would go up to $100 a pack.”
• Nancy Blakeley, Salisbury: “I love this! I am glad that North Carolina finally caught with the times and outlawed smoking indoors but how about the fact that to get indoors my daughter and I still have to walk through a thick cloud of cancer smoke.
“It is super inconsiderate of people to smoke directly in front of an entrance and carelessly blow their smoke into a child’s face. Just because you obviously do not value your own life doesn’t mean we are not affected by your second-hand smoke!”
• Eli Jarvis, Salisbury: “I’ve been a smoker for several years now and I can’t possibly understand how a tax hike could possibly encourage teens to quit.
“When I was a teen I was a smoker, then. I could purchase a pack of Marlboros for around $3.50. Still expensive, but not like they are today.
“They slowly increased since then. … I’m rather young, and the price increase didn’t stop me from being able to enjoy a cigarette after a stressful moment or a hard day’s work.
“It’s simply another excuse to raise taxes on things that taxes do not need to be raised on.”
• Tom Brown, Salisbury: “Guess you gotta pay it if you gotta smoke.”
• Nathan Simpson, 65, of Salisbury: “I’ve been smoking ever since I was 9 years old. It’s just like gas — when it runs up to $5 a gallon, if you need to ride, you’re gonna ride.
“Eventually I’m going to quit. Quit smoking, and quit driving, too.”
• Anthony Thornton, East Spencer: “I think it’s outrageous. I think they’re skyrocketing and I don’t like it.”
House Bill 341
Facts on smoking and the tax as presented in House Bill 341:
• Nearly 10,400 North Carolina children will become regular, daily smokers this year.
• The best way to prevent and reduce tobacco use by children is to substantially increase the cost of cigarettes.
• A cigarette tax increase of $1 would result in a 15.4 decrease in youth smoking rates, prevent 81,200 North Carolina children from becoming addicted adult smokers, and save 39,100 young people from premature smoking-related deaths.
• North Carolina’s tax of 45 cents is currently the seventh-lowest tax in the nation, and the current average cigarette tax among all states is $1.45.
• In contrast to North Carolina’s low cigarette tax is the fact that for every pack sold in North Carolina, it costs North Carolina taxpayers $7.17 per pack in health care costs to treat the serious chronic diseases brought on by cigarette smoking.
• The use of tobacco products costs the state $2.46 billion in direct healthcare costs, $769 million of which is in Medicaid expenses alone, and $3.3 billion in lost productivity annually.
• These deficits risk cuts to important programs affecting the health and well-being of North Carolinians and more reductions may be threatened.
• An increase of the cigarette tax of $1 would generate an estimated additional $272.5 million in new revenue in the first year.