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Smokers fed up in face of tax increase; officials advise quitting
August 9, 2005 By Stacey Range Lansing State Journal After smoking a pack of Marlboros a day for 20 years, Tim Shideler says he'll quit if the state cigarette tax jumps another 75 cents. "I'm still trying to keep up with the last tax increase," the Lansing man said Monday as he bought four packs of discount smokes instead of his more expensive premium brand. "I can't afford another increase." That's exactly the response Gov. Jennifer Granholm is hoping for by pushing the tax increase - the second in two years. Her budget proposal, presented last week to lawmakers, calls for raising the state cigarette tax this year to $2 a pack. If approved, Michigan's cigarette tax would jump from ninth highest in the nation to second highest. A pack of 20 cigarettes typically costs $4 to $5.50. Adding another 75 cents to that would bring in an extra $295 million a year to help fill the hole in the Medicaid budget, which resulted from a decrease in federal money. The first $30 million would go toward cessation and prevention programs. About 150,000 adult smokers are expected to quit if this tax proposal is approved, Michigan Surgeon General Dr. Kimberlydawn Wisdom said. Another 94,000 youths either will quit or won't be tempted to start smoking. About 70 percent of smokers want to quit anyway, Wisdom said. Raising the price of their habit adds even more incentive. "The fact is that when you raise the cost of smoking, people can't afford it anymore, so they quit," said. "That's what we want." But the proposal isn't sitting well with many smokers or retailers who say they'll lose business to neighboring states where taxes are cheaper or to Internet sales, which often aren't taxed at all. Hundreds of smokers and sellers of tobacco products have called the governor's office in the past week, expressing opposition to another tax increase, spokeswoman Elizabeth Boyd said. Barb Smith faxed a letter to Granholm last week. Smith, who owns Smokers Oasis discount cigarette store on West Saginaw Highway, said her business still is suffering from the last tax increase: 50 cents in August 2002. "If they raise the price again, I'm going to have to close my doors," Smith said. "There's no way we can sustain another loss and stay open." Smokers fuming Connii Froehlich, 36, of Lansing said she's tired of lawmakers picking on her and other smokers. "It's getting ridiculous," Froeh-lich said Monday as she picked up a carton of Marlboro Light 100s. "I don't know why they keep coming back to smokers for money." Raising cigarette taxes might make smokers fume, but it is one of the easiest taxes to increase. "Politically, it's a safe move," said pollster Ed Sarpolus of the Lansing-based EPIC-MRA. "No one can argue that smoking is safe, so they claim the health benefits of a tax increase to push it through." It's so safe that 32 states have raised cigarette taxes since January 2002. Few states saw much opposition from smokers embarrassed to fight for a habit so unhealthy and socially shunned. Raising cigarette taxes also is an easy way to get more money. Michigan's 2002 increase has brought in an extra $269 million, according to an analysis by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, a group lobbying for states to increase cigarette taxes. In Michigan, an estimated 2.5 million adults smoke regularly, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Every 10 percent increase in the cost of a pack of cigarettes lowers youth smoking about 7 percent and overall consumption by 4 percent, according to a study by Tobacco-Free Kids. Consumption in Michigan dropped 10.6 percent in 1994 after lawmakers raised the quarter tax to 75 cents. Consumption dropped another 10.3 percent in the six months after the 2002 increase to $1.25. Illegal sales ahead Polly Reber, president of the Michigan Distributors and Vendors Association, said Michigan sales, not consumption, will drop as the price goes up. "The tax increases don't stop people from smoking," Reber said. "It just stops them from buying their cigarettes in Michigan. Now they go to other states or the Internet." Several Internet sites offer cigarettes, even premium brands, at bargain prices. Neighboring states have lower taxes. Indiana, for example, charges just 55 cents state sales tax per pack and is a 90-minute drive from Lansing. While it is a felony to possess more than 15 cartons bought out of state, the practice is increasingly common. Lisa Kalchik, manager of Smokey Joes II on South Cedar Street, said she knows a lot of former customers who started buying cigarettes illegally after the last tax increase. Others have started rolling their own, saving about half the cost of buying pre-rolled smokes. "People are fed up," Kalchik said. "They're tired of paying these high prices when you can get them a lot cheaper. And they're tired of being picked on because they smoke." Contact Stacey Range at 377-1157 or firstname.lastname@example.org.