Retailers cringe, customers complain, anti-tobacco advocates cheer, and politicians count the proceeds.
These were some of the reactions to the latest increase of the state cigarette tax, which went into effect Thursday. One pack of cigarettes now costs a smoker an average of about $9 statewide and about $11 in New York City, which adds its own tax.
Lorraine Oeser, manager of Smoker Friendly in Canajoharie, hoped for the best but expected the worst Wednesday, the last day before the tax increase went into effect.
The Leader-Herald/Edward J. Hunt
Diahanna Gonzales, left, and Cathy Schuyler of Smoker’s Choice in Johnstown work behind the counter Wednesday.
"I've gotten a lot of complaints from customers today," she said. "Some say they will go to Vermont or that they will go to the reservation."
But business was brisk, for now at least, she noted Wednesday. "I've been telling customers about the tax for a while. I even ordered extra for this week."
Oeser recalled 2008, the last time the tax was increased, and a steep drop in sales, but business recovered eventually. That year, the state tax rose $1.25 to $2.75. This year, a jump of $1.60 brings the state tax to $4.35, the highest in the nation.
She seemed resigned to a slowdown, however. "We're hoping business will stay the same. We are expecting sales to go down, hopefully only for a short time."
Lori Mott, manager of Smoker's Choice on Route 30A in Johnstown, was more confident.
"Business is good," she said as she unloaded a fresh supply of cigarette cartons to replace the store's depleted stock of popular brands.
Her store's sales went up after the 2008 tax increase, she said, and she doesn't expect a drop this time. Even if a slowdown of cigarette sales occurs, Mott said she thinks sales of bagged tobacco for "roll-your-own" cigarettes will make up the difference because the cost for a carton's worth of tobacco and wrappers will still be less than a carton of regular pre-made cigarettes.
This will remain true, she said, even after a change in tax on bagged tobacco takes effect near Aug. 1, when the wholesale tax on this type of tobacco, as well as on cigars and chewing tobacco, goes up to 75 percent from the current 46 percent. The tax on smokeless tobacco will approximately double at this time also, costing consumers $2 an ounce, up from 96 cents.
There was a steady stream of customers at the store and walk-up counter and the drive-through window. Cars up lined up continuously, the queue stretching at times eight cars back from the window, and customers kept clerks Diahanna Gonzales and Cathy Schuyler busy.
"We ran out of a lot of stuff," said Gonzales as she passed a bag to a customer at the drive-through.
"It's been like this since last week when people got their paychecks," Schuyler said.
Strong sales doesn't mean that smokers are happy with the additional cash coming out of their pockets, however.
"It really irks me," Warren Hulbert of Johnstown said as he bought a pack of menthols and two packs of little cigars. "The politicians [in Albany], they can't get a budget together. What does that tell you? Something is way out of line."
Hulbert said he was buying just enough tobacco to hold him over until he goes to Maine for the holiday weekend. "It's cheaper there," he said.
Fellow Johnstown resident and customer Carl Maryea was equally annoyed.
"It's ridiculous," he said. "There's no other word for it. Why should consumers like us have to bail the government out again?"
The reality of addiction and the dangers of smoking greatly concerns Rebecca Manwaring, director of Project Action Tobacco-Free Coalition of Hamilton, Fulton and Montgomery Counties, a nonprofit advocacy group funded by the New York State Department of Health and based at St. Mary's Hospital in Amsterdam. She said she hopes positive change will occur as a result of the tax increase by reducing the number of current smokers and preventing young people from becoming smokers.
"It only takes one cigarette to start the pattern of addiction." she said. "I hope that the tax increase will motivate smokers to quit, but even more than that, I hope that it will keep youth from ever trying their first cigarette."
In a recent community survey, Project Action found that approximately 26 percent of residents of Montgomery County, 20 percent in Fulton County and 18 percent in Hamilton County were smokers. Montgomery's percentage was highest among the 17 New York counties surveyed, with Fulton coming in sixth. Manwaring said she is looking for a reduction in these numbers as a result of the increase.
"Young people aren't thinking of dying of cancer when they smoke for the first time, but if the cost makes them hesitate, and it saves a life, it's worth it," she said.
The $1.60 increase was pushed through the legislative process in Albany in an attempt to help elected officials plug the gaping $9 billion state budget hole. Originally, Gov. David Paterson called for a $1 increase, but he and legislators later agreed to the larger increase. The new tax is expected to raise about $440 million for health care programs such as tobacco-cessation programs. The state cancer research center in Buffalo will receive about $71 billion of this revenue.
As Mott sees it, the cash from smokers will continue to flow.
"People will always smoke," she said.