scholars and rogues

College students curb smoking habit—Regulations and taxes hurt campus smokers

The second in a five-part series examining the impacts of NY State’s recent tax hike on cigarettes

by Alex Cole

smoking02
photo by Talbot Eckweiler

Jeff Jones stumbles out of bed at five o’clock in the morning, longing for that first jolt of nicotine.

He slams his palm against the top of his blaring alarm clock and throws on a pair of sweats. Creeping through the darkness, he blindly reaches for the essentials.

Keys? Check.

St. Bonaventure School ID? Check.

Cigarettes? Check.

Money? Not quite.

The cigarettes and the money aren’t mutually exclusive. Taxes increase. Prices increase. Taxes increase even more. Prices increase even more.

But any price is worth the taste of tobacco in the morning.

Jeff works his way out of the dorm and toward smoking territory. Balancing a pack of smokes in one hand and a lighter in the other, he trudges down two flights of steep stairs toward the building’s exit.

It’s all part of his elaborate morning routine: Get up, smoke. Work out, smoke. Go to breakfast, smoke. Shower, smoke. All before noon. He’s been doing it for years.

“I started very young with trying cigarettes in middle school,” Jeff says. “And it progressed as I went to high school.”

It continues to progress through his college career. Jeff throws his weight against the doors of Devereux Hall and finally steps onto the outside pavement. Squeezing the cigarette between his lips, Jeff clicks his lighter a few times and conjures fire.

The blaze touches the tip of the cigarette, producing a solitary light in the surrounding darkness. The ginger flame glows as he feeds the nicotine into his body.

“I started because it was against the rules,” he admits. “I had a rebel mentality when I was young.”
But the price to break the rules continues to rise in New York State. Being a rebel now costs Jeff about $30 a week thanks to a recent cigarette tax increase.

Affording that extra buck and a quarter per pack means cutting down.

“I used to smoke over a pack of cigarettes a day,” he explains. “But I’ve cut back a lot. I don’t even think I smoke half a pack a day now.”

None of that matters to him now. He needs that one morning smoke to kick off a day filled with classes, clubs, and ROTC – even if it means forking over the highest cigarette tax in the nation.

“Prices have gone up, even on the [Indian] reservations,” Jeff admits. “But I don’t think it’s enough to stop people from paying for cigarettes.”

Jeff puffs away at his first light of the day without thinking of dollars and cents. He smokes the cigarette down to its butt, tosses it onto the pavement, and stifles the flame with his foot.

A Taxing Matter

Not every student follows Jeff’s example. College students are smoking at the lowest rate in almost 20 years.
According to the American Lung Association, roughly one in five college students are smokers. That’s nearly one-third lower than in 1999.

But that rate is still well above the national goal set by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services – 12 percent or less adult smokers by 2010.

New York State is doing its part to reach the national goal. Gov. Paterson and the state legislature enacted a tax increase on June 3, effectively raising cigarette prices by $1.25. The increase forces smokers to pay a whopping $2.75 per pack – the highest tax in the nation.

That cost is even higher in the Big Apple. New York City smokers pay $4.25 in state and county taxes every time they purchase a pack of cigarettes.

Why boost prices? State officials claim tax increases help smokers quit.

“We know one of the really effective tools to get people off their nicotine addiction is to raise the prices,” says Richard Daines, state health commissioner, in a press statement.

Adults aren’t the only group the tax targets. The state also hopes to take cigarettes out of the hands of kids.
“Young people are particularly sensitive to price increases,” Commissioner Daines explains. “If people don’t become addicted to cigarettes as teens, they almost never become smokers later in life.”

And New York has a goal of its own. It hopes an unprecedented amount of smokers will butt out for good.

“The cigarette excise tax increase is critical in saving lives and helping us reach our goal of one million fewer smokers by 2010,” says Commissioner Daines.

College students may be difficult to persuade. A national survey published in 2004 found that 54 percent of college smokers had tried to quit in the past year. Most of them were not successful.

“Every college student in America has a target on their back as far as the tobacco industry is concerned,” says American Lung Association CEO Bernadette Toomey.

A Different Mantra

Though the state continues to preach its tax mantra, other legislation has college smokers thinking twice before lighting up.

In 2008, New York amended its Clean Indoor Air Act to include dorms, residence halls, and other housing facilities owned by colleges. Smoking is no longer tolerated in the facilities of neither public nor private universities.

Why? A recent report by the ALA says that smoking restrictions in student housing and campus buildings decreases the likelihood of lighting up.

Jeff Jones is typical of this trend.

“I smoke much less when I’m at school,” Jeff reveals, “mainly due to the inability to smoke inside and the cold weather.”

About 80 universities in New York State regulate smoking in some way. Jamestown Community College restricts smoking to specified areas on campus. The State University of New York system banned smoking in its dorms in 2007. And some colleges, such as D’Youville and Cazenovia, even boast smokefree campuses.

The regulations came in response to high collegiate smoking rates. In 1999, about 31 percent of college students smoked on a regular basis. Smokefree air laws on campuses have since expanded.

“Policies keeping tobacco off college campuses counteract the efforts of Big Tobacco to target college students and helps turn smokefree teens into smokefree adults,” says Michael Seilback, vice president of public policy and communications for the ALA.

According to the ALA, these regulations coupled with rising cigarette taxes have consistently lowered college smoke rates for the past 10 years.

But whether these smoking restrictions are always enforced is a different question altogether.

Smoking at St. Bonaventure: College Smoking Culture

Smoking statistics are hard to come by at St. Bonaventure University in Olean. According to its Health Services Department, the college hasn’t conducted any recent research on its own smoking culture.

Regardless, the university has its own smoking regulations. It enacted a building entranceway ban on smoking about two years ago.

Small signs on the entrances to every campus building lay down the law: “No smoking in this area. 30 feet from door.”

But some students refuse to obey the rule.

The main entrance to Plassmann Hall is just one hotspot frequented by smokers. Herds of students stampede the front steps each morning, eager to light up one precious smoke between classes.

“It helps me unwind before my next class,” says one smoker. “Anything to relieve the stress.”

Packs of premium smokes begin exchange hands – Marlboros, Newports, and Camels. These college kids don’t mess around with generic, cheaper brands. Despite high cigarette taxes, they continue to afford only the best.

St. Bonaventure’s smoking culture is typical of a normal college campus. Smokers’ circles form around the premises and grow with each passing minute. Two students become three. Three becomes five. Five becomes seven.

Flocks of students huddle around benches, patches of pavement, and black smoke cans. Smoking transforms into a social experience.

They talk about weekend plans. They talk about tests. They talk about homework. They talk about sports. All while instinctively inhaling a tiny piece of tobacco.

One cluster puts the rest to shame – the biggest band of smokers bunches together on the top steps, right next to Plassmann Hall’s main doors.

They puff away without consequence. They block the flow of traffic. They blow second-hand smoke into the building without thinking twice.

“I do this all the time,” one doorway smokers admits. “I’ve never gotten in trouble for it.”

Only one smoke can stands well away from the building’s entrances. But it’s not being used for cigarettes butts – candy wrappers, potato chip bags, and plastic bottles overflow from the top.

Smokers on the outskirts of the building pay no attention to the ashtrays in front each door. They carelessly flick cigarette butts onto the pavement.

The Last Smoker

Midnight strikes St. Bonaventure University.

Steve Wade sits on the cold brick wall in front of Devereux Hall, preparing for the night’s last smoke before hitting the sack.

No students bustling by. No smokers’ circles. No noise at all.

Nothing except for the shadowed silhouette of the day’s final smoker.

Steve jiggles around in his pockets, searching for a smoke and a lighter to help sing him to sleep.

“Smoking is relaxing,” he smiles. “It makes me feel good. This, a beer, and a nap – I take these things in life for granted.”

But Steve isn’t reaching for a cigarette. He hasn’t smoked one since July.

Steve switched to cigars thanks to the recent tax increase.

He doesn’t settle for skinny stogies. Steve enjoys the taste of a long, fat corona. Plus, he doesn’t have to pay an extra tax for it.

“Cigars last longer, and they’re cheaper for the amount that I smoke,” Steve says. “What’s the difference, really? People should just switch to cigars.”

Steve draws the tobacco to his lips and bites down on the butt. A few clicks from his lighter conjures up a dancing flame.

Fire and tobacco touch. The orange ember at the tip of the cigar illuminates the shadows. Steve gently lifts the smoke with his fingers, sliding it past his lips and between his teeth.

He quickly inhales a few times, ensuring that the tobacco stays lit. He cups his hand in front of the cigar’s tip, feels the heat it generates, and puffs out a screen of smoke.

“Usually, I just get what’s cheapest,” he explains. “I’m not smoking it for the taste. Just for the sensation.”
Silence ensues. Steve’s heavy breathing and sporadic coughing interrupts it every few seconds.

He doesn’t believe the cigarette tax is stopping people from smoking. Steve says they’ll always find a way to light up, even if it means smoking a different form of tobacco.

“I don’t think there’s any law [the state] could pass to stop smoking,” Steve admits.” I’ve seen people struggling with it. But they keep on smoking. They’re going to keep doing it no matter what.”

And that, along with the relaxing sensation, is why he comes back to the habit time and again.

“At the end of the day, I use this time to kick back and ponder,” Steve explains. “I’m usually stressed.”

Steve puffs the cigar for a good twenty minutes, right on down to its butt. He glances at the remaining tobacco, unsure of where to throw it or what to do with it.

He finally tosses the smoke onto the front lawn. It remains hidden beneath piles of fallen leaves and the surrounding darkness.

———-

Alex Cole is a freelance writer and recent graduate of St. Bonaventure University in New York. He currently resides in Syracuse, NY.

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12 replies »

  1. Although I abhor tobacco in any form, I really abhor the government’s attempt to regulate smoking, places smoking is allowed, and excessive taxation. On one hand, the government subsidizes tobacco farming through allotments and direct payments, and on the other hand they tax smokers excessively. Something here is wrong. I understand the health costs and loss of productivity due to smoking, but the same case can be made for other self destructive legal behaviors such as drinking and skydiving. I empathize with those who don’t want to share second hand smoke, as I certainly don’t. However, the reality is that I probably get more noxious smoke standing next to Highway 41 than I would in a crowded bar.

    My lovely wife used to keep ash trays in our house despite the fact that we don’t smoke. Her good Southern upbringing told her that it would be very rude to make a guest in our house go outside for a smoke. Some guests smoked inside, some went outside and it didn’t matter to her. When people would leave after smoking, she would just open the windows and air out the house…simple solution. Since she’s gone, I have removed the ash trays, as I don’t share her good manners.

    Jeff

  2. It’s a drug addiction, and it’s one that effects others directly and is an unneeded health risk for them (the non-smoking victims). People should not have to be subjected to more dangers than needed for society to function, and your drug addiction shouldn’t ruin my child’s lungs.

    I agree that we should not be subsidizing tobacco companies, in fact, I think it’s crazy that we subsidize most of what we do in this country, it hides the true costs of everything and helps put the masses tax dollars into the hands of the minority [who are the business owners] who then shit on the rights of those who fund them from both ends.

    And if you think you’re getting too much toxic fumes from being near the highway, then support legislation that forces cars to pollute less and stop letting the morons at GM and Ford tell you it’s too expensive. What they’re really saying is “we’d have to give up our luxury personal jets, and we’d much rather watch you slowly die than do that”.

    And my house is my house, and if I don’t want to smell your toxic residue, how is that rude of ME to ask you to not leave that disgusting smell in my house? Trust me, “opening the windows to air it out” doesn’t get rid of the tar and nicotine and other thick gases/particulates that settle into everything. What’s rude is someone thinking it’s ok for them to be so arrogant as to have a right to filth up someone elses house with the stench of their disgusting drug addiction (cheers to you for not thinking you should be a doormat).

    And drinking, if done responsibly, is _nothing_ like smoking, and proportionately, many many fewer people die skydiving than from lung cancer. 35 per 2.5 mil or so every year. Lots of people die from drinking, too.. and even kill other people from their drunkenness. What bothers me is we don’t have stricter punishments for those that refuse to control themselves. Say, if you get picked up for drunk driving, you lose your license for a year or more and spend 60 days in jail, period, no matter what. Second offense? no license for 10 years, 5 years in prison. Third offense? loss of license permanently, 20 to life in prison under the premise that you’re a 3 time loser that is content to engage in attempted reckless homicide and can’t be trusted to be on the streets. Want to stop drunk driving? get serious with the punishments. Want to stop smokers from polluting other people’s air? make smoking more of a bother than its worth (or simply outlaw the making of cigarettes since they clearly are an unhealthy product and our consumer protection agencies aught to be doing their job).

    So, the reality is, many people have to live with the consequences of other people’s actions (cars pollute), but we have the right to demand that that be minimized. What’s amazing to me is we have people that feel it’s more important for themselves to have cash than other people to live their lives with the fewest possible detrimental impacts as possible. Americans have this delusion that everything is cheap, but that’s because they like to close their eyes to the death and destruction going on around the world to facilitate our rampant consumption. Taxes help guide where those resources come and go from, and curtail behaviors for those too ignorant to do so themselves. Slippery slope, indeed.. but, then, that’s why we _self_-govern.

  3. Savanster said,

    “And my house is my house, and if I don’t want to smell your toxic residue, how is that rude of ME to ask you to not leave that disgusting smell in my house? Trust me, “opening the windows to air it out” doesn’t get rid of the tar and nicotine and other thick gases/particulates that settle into everything”

    You’d have to be a well bred Southern woman raised with good manners to understand her policy on allowing smoking in the house.

    Jeff

  4. Sorry Jeff, I do not agree one bit. Smoking kills people and it harms those who have no say in the matter. It ruins the health of everyone who is around the person who smokes, even if they are not there when it is happening (read about the third hand smoke horrors reported lately).
    Smoking causes health costs, insurance rates, and home owners insurance to rise for EVERYONE, not just those who puff away their lives. Stupid is as stupid does, and smoking is just plain stupid to the extreme. Allowing it in your home is even stupider because you KNOW better.

  5. Gindy, I agree with you and accept your reasons with limited skepticism. I don’t allow smoking in my house. However, my wife was trained old school Southern, and they do things a bit differently. With them, good manners and making your guests feel comfortable in any situation count more than health issues. Call her a throwback, perhaps that’s an apt description….but she was a wonderful throwback to an age where people were more civil in society. If she was suddenly resurrected, the ash trays would come out of the closet in a second and she’d chide me for my lack of manners.

    Jeff

  6. In 2009, a well-bred man (or woman) of any background would never put his hostess in the unpleasant position of choosing between her other guests’ health and his own addictive behavior. Etiquette changes with time. None of the smokers I know would even imagine lighting up in someone else’s home, let alone embarrassing their hostess by asking about it. Perhaps it’s a generational thing; I don’t have darkies holding my guests’ horses, either, nor do I put out spittoons.

  7. Etiquette might change over time, but being a gracious hostess and having good manners never change.

    Darkies, WTF???

    Jeff

  8. Ann: As a smoker, I completely agree. Hell I don’t even smoke in my own house because you can’t get the bloody smell out and I have friends that don’t smoke over on a regular basis. I don’t let others smoke in my house, either. People are rude and silly and will thump ashes on the floor and burn my carpet and couches. I certainly wouldn’t ask if I could smoke in someone else’s home. And the thought of wandering in and lighting up without asking absolutely horrifies me.
    I’m one of the polite smokers. I refuse to smoke in any public place unless I can find a place no one is likely to even wander through while I’m smoking. We exist. Really we do. You just don’t notice us because the ones of us you see are that asshole lighting up next to your kids. (No tolerance for people stupid enough to smoke around children. Even their own.)
    Smoking is a stupid dangerous habit. We know that. We’re not children. Even if most of us did start as children. (I was just a bit over 10)

    @Gindy: Mmm. I smell self righteousness cooking.
    Those bad people won’t do what you think is best for them? How dare they?!
    As for third hand smoke I can’t find a single peer reviewed article on how harmful it is.
    Just that people who have no scientific background THINK it might be harmful. What you refer to was a survey. If you disagree, by all means, I’d love to hear the PPM or PPB it becomes dangerous at.
    If it leaves toxic residue on me, then I suggest you not lick my forehead.
    In fact, you’d be amazed at the amount of toxic shit floating around in your home that has nothing to do with cigarettes.
    For some reason you strike me as the sort of person that will purposefully wander up to a smoker standing in the middle of an empty field and stand beside them so you can cough pointedly. Yeah, people really do that. I’ve been coughed at in my own parking lot far from the building by a person that walked nearly the legnth of a football field to cough at me for smoking within his line of sight. I guess my fifth-hand smoke was bothering him. (Fifth hand smoke: When my smoking makes you think of the chemical residue someone else may have to deal with at some point in the future. )

  9. One’s house is one’s house; one makes the rules according to their own beliefs, and that should be respected no matter what.

    While the attempt to reduce/eliminate smoking from society is admirable, it does run up against a few obstacles in the way that it is currently practiced. I don’t believe all the “we’re doing it for people’s health” arguments that come from lawmakers, etc. If that were the case, wouldn’t governments be more effective by simply outlawing tobacco as a controlled substance? They raise the taxes because they want the revenue, and no government actually puts revenue like that into the “trust funds” that they talk about. Not for health, not for social security, not for anything. They use that money and promise to pay back the “trust fund” when the money is needed.

    And the whiny, “you’re effecting my precious health” screeches of anti-smoking zealots is laughable. It’s a matter of choosing an easy answer and a minority easy to persecute. There’s no question that second hand smoke is bad for people, but the 1.5 pounds of pesticides that the average American consumes in a year is pretty bad for people too. That cancer rates have gone up as smoking rates have gone down suggests that there may be other bogeymen underneath the bed.

    And in any case, the self-righteousness is incredibly annoying…even starting from agreement that zero smokers would be the best numbers of smokers.

    The nanny state is all fun and games until it starts telling you what you can and cannot do.

  10. “The nanny state is all fun and games until it starts telling you what you can and cannot do.”

    Telling someone they can’t abuse someone else’s rights isn’t “nanny state”, it’s the very basis of what government is for… to protect people from other people that can’t be trusted to behave like decent, respectful human beings in the first place. Laws against smoking in public protect citizens from excessive risk that they have limited, if any, recourse to do anything about on their own (I don’t have a right to take your cig. and crush it, for example).

    Now, the “taxes” issue, being used to sculpt public behaviors and opinions, that’s a nice gray area. Taxes, and sculpting general behavior are things the government is also empowered/expected to do. And for taxes to be remotely “fair”, must be applied in a manner that allow reasonable choices by individuals. I’m all for a consumption/luxury tax over the personal income tax. That goes for cigarettes, too. They are a luxury, and a personal choice, and one that doesn’t impede your ability to live your life if you chose to, but buying them from a store simply allows you more convenience. You can certainly grow your own tobacco, chop it, roll it, and smoke it _tax free_. Just like you can make your own alcohol and drink that, tax free. If _you_ do it, you can do it tax free, is mostly the premise. As soon as someone wants to make a living at it, a business out of it, it’s taxed.. in part, to support the regulation and oversight needed to make sure you’re not making money by risking other people’s lives.

    That said, if you don’t like paying all that extra cash for a luxury that isn’t required for normal or healthy living, then don’t pay that tax.. by not buying that luxury. The state isn’t telling you what you can or can’t do, it’s just telling you that you’ll pay out the nose if you want to engage in deadly luxury habits. It’s not “cheap” to jump out of a plane, either.

    “And the whiny, “you’re effecting my precious health” screeches of anti-smoking zealots is laughable. It’s a matter of choosing an easy answer and a minority easy to persecute. There’s no question that second hand smoke is bad for people, but the 1.5 pounds of pesticides that the average American consumes in a year is pretty bad for people too.”

    First you say “screeching”, then concede the danger. Seems odd to me to use your own substantiation as an attack, but whatever. Then the second half.. pesticides.. You’re 100% _correct_, and that is a FAILING of the Government. They should NOT be letting companies put those poisons on our plates, they should not be expecting the average dummy American to understand that they are being put at risk simply by eating food. That food should be required to be _safe_ as it’s being sold to the public, but our government FAILS us in that regard, because they are in bed with the Corporate Farms that say “but our CEOs won’t be able to fly in private jets to their tax-sheltering vacation spots if we have to sell clean food”.. And the public keeps electing these sellouts to make policy for them. …. in fact, if our leaders were doing their jobs, they would tell tobacco companies that they are no longer allowed to sell cigarettes in America because of all the ADDED poisons they put in (to increase crop yields, they say). Either sell 100% raw clean tobacco, or get out of the business.. that should be the mandate.

    This, as with all arguments of this type, would be no big deal if you were only effecting your own life. But, you don’t. You eventually effect the entire society (increased health care costs in older age, just like with obesity). That brings it into the purview of the government and public opinion/action.

    Gray area.

  11. My point was to bring a bigger picture.

    Second hand smoke is bad, yes, but it is also avoidable. I doubt that second hand smoke on a sidewalk is worth arranging society around. Forcing a business owner (not public property) to disallow a legal behavior on their premises is, well, it sounds pretty un-American. Market forces should be enough to convince the business owner to choose non-smoking.

    But if the weed is indeed a threat to society with no redeeming qualities and worthy of constraining freedom to defeat, then it should simply be outlawed. Put the smokers in jail; try them for negligent manslaughter or something. Follow the train of thought to its logical conclusion and act on it (not anyone personally, in general).

    And i have to wonder if second hand smoke is more or less dangerous than second hand pharmaceuticals.

    And while researchers do not yet understand the exact risks from decades of persistent exposure to random combinations of low levels of pharmaceuticals, recent studies which have gone virtually unnoticed by the general public have found alarming effects on human cells and wildlife.

    Again, no argument from me about smoking being bad or even necessarily against punitive taxation…but sometimes the anti-tobacco crusade appears to mistake a tree for the forest.

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