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N.Y. Smokers Face Highest Tax In Nation

New Yorkers start paying the highest cigarette taxes in the nation Tuesday with the latest $1.25 spike per pack that officials expect to bring in $265 million a year.

Convenience stores across the state and the smokers who will be paying the price are angry about the change, but health officials hail the tax increase as a success. Cigarette taxes will raise a total of $1.3 billion for the state budget in fiscal year 2008-2009, including the new tax.

"Isn't that something - to say that I'm excited about a tax increase? But I am," said Dr. Richard Daines, the New York health commissioner. "This is a public health victory. We know one of the really effective tools to get people off of their nicotine addiction is to the raise the price."

Smokers will be paying $2.75 per pack in state taxes, a jump from the previous tax of $1.50. Before the new tax, the average price of a pack of cigarettes was $5.82 statewide, and about $8 a pack in New York City, which levies its own taxes, Daines said. The new retail price for a pack in the city could now soar past $10 depending on the store.

An estimated 140,000 New Yorkers will stop smoking with this tax increase, Daines said. That number is based on prior tax increases and cigarette consumption.

"Youth are particularly sensitive to the price of cigarettes, so this price increase is expected to prevent 243,000 youth from smoking," Daines said.

Daines said the tax increase is just one part of an $83 million anti-smoking effort that includes advertising and public service announcements, attempts to get tobacco consumption out of youth rated movies and cessation centers around the state.

"What we really want people to do is not to pay the price, but to stop smoking," he said.

Audrey Silk, who heads NYC Citizens Lobbying Against Smoker Harassment, said it's ridiculous to expect smokers to quit just because the price is climbing. She switched to rolling her own cigarettes since the last New York City tax increase and suggests other smokers will find similar ways to satisfy nicotine cravings.

"No product has a tax at this rate on it," Silk said. "If there was, there would be screaming, but since we've been beaten into submission and nobody listens to us, what else is there to do? It's unjustifiable and you turn to alternatives, and any consumer group would do the same."

Convenience stores, which historically count on cigarette sales, have also objected to the tax, saying it will drive smokers - and dollars - elsewhere.

"The tax increase is only going to feed that epidemic," said Jim Calvin, president of the New York Association of Convenience Stores. "More and more smokers in New York state are going to abandon our stores that have to charge the tax and shift their purchases to places that don't charge the tax, most notably Native American stores, the Internet and bootleggers."