The second in a five-part series examining the impacts of NY State’s recent tax hike on cigarettes
by Alex Cole
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.
St. Bonaventure School ID? 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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