Anyone remember that enormous federal tax hike that President Obama instituted just 16 days after he entered office? I do, because I’m a cigarette smoker—or was, anyway, until about two months ago when I was finally priced out of vice by Obama’s biggest tax increase this term. Mitt Romney might have forgotten about it, but Obama’s tobacco tax has generated upwards of $30 billion in new revenue since it took effect on April 1, 2009. Essentially overnight, the prices of cigarette packs all over the U.S. increased by 22 percent, forcing smokers to shell out more cash to stave off the nic-fits. Since then, roughly three million Americans have quit, resulting in a historic low for tobacco use, which now hangs at 18.9 percent nationwide. If sin taxes don’t work, then the folks over at USA Today have some serious fact-checking to do.
I started smoking in college, mainly to get more breaks while on the clock at my part-time job at Acme. Stupid as I am, the idea of hanging outside with the other teenage slackers and puffing cigs sounded a whole lot better than actually working, so Joe Camel won out there. But I wasn’t some dilly-dallying, “oh-I’ll-just-have-a-puff”-type smoker; I dove right in. A pack a day habit started almost immediately, though I lied and told my parents it was half that (sorry, ma!). A smoke break an hour (or more if I could swing it) was standard at the supermarket, and I wasn’t even the worst smoker my age.
From there, I fell in love with cigarette smoking. Bill Hicks’s famous rant advocating cigarette use was my gospel and smokers’ rights were my shield. With that, I set off on my path toward nicotine addiction. Cigs became my go-to security blanket, always there to calm my nerves during a stressful situation or offer a reflective moment to collect my thoughts when writing. But more than that, they forced a kind of sociability to develop around other smokers, and it became fun to go off to find a place to take a puff and enjoy some conversation away from the larger group.
So I put up with the prices, and the phlegm, and judgment from non-smokers. Until about four months ago. For whatever reason, the cost of cigarettes began to outweigh their usefulness and my desire for them. Then I realized that I was spending an equal amount of money on cigarettes as rent every month. The $1.01 per pack federal tax coupled with Pennsylvania’s $1.60 excise tax had finally become too much. Begrudgingly, I stopped lighting up.
That the federal government pushed me into that decision does bother me. I can’t complain, however, about what all my smoked-up cash went to. Essentially, Obama’s heightened tax on my beloved cigarettes netted a more-than-modest amount of extra funding for the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, allowing SCHIP to extend its coverage. With the price of cigarettes today, current smokers ought to be able to deduct the cost of their habit from their taxes.
By all means, smoke up if you can afford it and want to keep going. But I know there are at least a few Philadelphians who feel my pain. We have the highest adult smoking rate in the nation at around 25 percent—that’s more than New York City by a wide margin, so at least we have them squarely beat somewhere. Hit hardest by the tobacco tax increase have been households making less than $50,000 annually. That’s about two-thirds of all smokers in the nation, and those making $25,000 or less spend around 14 percent of their annual income on smokes alone. We have a city-wide poverty rate of nearly 27 percent—that’s a whole lot of poor people blowing a whole lot of cash on nothing. Hell, I used to be included in that set.
We’re a smoking city, to be sure—up to four out of 10 adults in some areas. And I’m here to tell you, I get it—cigarettes can be seen as a great ally in everyday life, as they provide moments of release from anxiety and stress throughout the day. They also manufacture that stress and anxiety. But you’re all adults (or better be). I’m not going to tell you that quitting is the greatest thing I’ve ever done, though the health benefits are miraculous (things have smells!). There is a certain lack of punctuation to my day now, though, an aspect that I fear might never be fulfilled.
However, given the choice between saving money on a habit that slowly deteriorates my body and continuing to smoke up $250 a month in a menthol haze courtesy of a multibillion-dollar corporation? I’ll take the extra cash every time.