COLUMBIA — An increase in the federal tax on cigarettes and other tobacco products is giving smokers a case of sticker shock, and public health advocates think the extra cost will provide a financial incentive for smokers to call it quits.
The 39-cent federal tax on a pack of cigarettes increased on Wednesday to $1.01, pushing the price of a pack to a high of $5.60 at those Columbia retail outlets that spoke to the Missourian.
The price of cigarettes had already increased recently at many retail outlets from about $3.50 a pack in anticipation of the tax increase. Two Breaktime convenience stores on Wednesday put the price of a pack of Marlboro Lights at $4.99. HyVee's price was $5.60.
Revenue from the federal tax increase is intended to fund expanded health insurance for families with children and those who have incomes just above the cutoff for Medicaid under the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP).
Linda Cooperstock, health planner for Columbia/Boone County Department of Public Health and Human Services, said the tax increase will add to the notion around the country and the world that “smoking isn’t the norm.”
Cooperstock said she sees the tax increase as the “last straw” for many who might already want to quit for other reasons.
A 10 percent increase in cigarette prices, she said, generally increases the number of smokers who quit by anywhere from 4 percent to 7 percent.
About one in five adults in the United States smokes cigarettes.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cigarette smoking results in an estimated 443,000 premature deaths annually, and costs the economy $193 billion in health care expenses and lost time from work.
Public health officials are urging individual doctors and staff at telephone "quit lines" in every state to make the most of the tax increase by reaching out to smokers. But it's unclear how deeply the tax will cut into tobacco consumption.
MU sophomore Michael Nelson, who was with a group of smokers outside Starbucks on Ninth Street Tuesday evening, called the tax increase "ridiculous," but said it could be enough for him to consider quitting "cold turkey."
Another smoker, Amr Algothmi, said he doesn't think smokers "should be forced to pay for health care." Algothmi, who smokes a pack every two to three days, said he’ll try to cut down to a pack per week and only smoke cigarettes socially.
“If they want to improve the health care, there are many other ways," Algothmi said. "They are using just one resource, and that’s just not fair.”
The smoking cessation counseling offered at the Boone County Health Center offers free counseling and nicotine patches to Boone County residents.
Cooperstock said she's noticed a recent increase of people seeking aid. She added that the price increase is another factor along with the smoking ban in Columbia that was instituted in January 2007.
In the two years since the ban, the center expected to help 800 people quit smoking. But in only 21 months, they were at 1,450.
Even with this large turnout, Cooperstock said the “word on the street” was April was the time to quit.
Ron Leone, executive director of Missouri Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association, said he thinks the tax increase is “outrageous,” and to his knowledge, it’s the “single largest tax increase (on cigarettes) in history."
“My complaint is if you have a national problem … it requires a national solution," he said. The answer for him is not one where the majority of nonsmokers impose a tax on the minority of smokers.
Instead of simply outlawing cigarettes, he said the anti-tobacco camp is “trying to kill tobacco by death of 1,000 cuts.”
Missouri’s state tax on cigarettes is still among the lowest in the nation: 17 cents, compared to $2.58 in New Jersey and $2.75 in New York.
Tobacco company Philip Morris USA raised Marlboro prices by 71 cents a pack in early March, and prices on smaller brands by 81 cents a pack. Other major companies followed suit.
The pricing moves have been raising eyebrows.
"That's nothing more than greed," said Kevin Altman, an industry consultant who advises small tobacco companies. "They weren't required to charge that until April 1. They are just putting that into their pockets."
Philip Morris USA spokesman Bill Phelps said, "We raised our prices in direct response to the federal excise tax increase, and people who are upset about that should find out how their member of Congress voted, and contact him or her."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.