California taxes on cigarettes aim at reducing smoker population


As of April 1, Californians are forking over an extra $2 per pack.

Some smokers this past week said they were stocking up on cartons, ahead of Saturday’s price hike. Others said it’s jolting them into finally snuffing out cigarettes for good.

“Absolutely, I’m quitting. I refuse to pay it,” said Citrus Heights resident Heather Jarrett, a smoker for 21 years, who said the new tax will mean an extra $120 a month to cover her and her husband’s nicotine habit. “It’s not a small amount.”

One of her fellow Sacramento County co-workers, Caitlin Holloway, said she’s on her last carton of cigarettes, vowing to snuff out her habit completely due to the cost. “I cannot do the extra $2 a pack. It’s too much of a financial burden as a single parent. … It’s a really good motivation to quit.”

That was one of the primary aims of Proposition 56, passed by statewide voters in November, marking the first time in more than 20 years that California approved significant tobacco control legislation. Also last year, state lawmakers raised the age from 18 to 21 to purchase tobacco products, tightened loopholes on workplace smoking bans and made K-12 campuses completely smoke-free. And for the first time, California tobacco laws included electronic cigarettes, which have become increasingly popular, especially among teens and young adults.

At $2.87, California now has the ninth highest cigarette tax in the country. That’s well below leader-of-the-pack New York’s $4.35 tax but significantly above states such as Missouri, which charges 17 cents a pack.

Will it motivate more smokers to give up their habit? “Absolutely,” said Jim Knox, vice president of government relations for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network Inc. in California. “In every instance, when a state has increased its tobacco tax, there’s been a reduction in smoking. It’s been proven time and time again. It’s incontrovertible.”

Raising the price of tobacco is “the single most effective way to reduce tobacco use,” according to a June 2016 report by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It said higher costs have been shown to deter people from starting to smoke, encourage more smokers to quit and “reduce the prevalence and intensity” of tobacco use by adolescents and adults.

Aside from cigarettes, California’s ballot measure also raised excise taxes on non-cigarette tobacco products – cigars, cigarillos, chewing tobacco and snuff – which are currently set at 27.3 percent of the wholesale cost. But they’re expected to more than double, starting in July, to at least 66 percent for the new fiscal year, according to the state Board of Equalization. The new price will likely be determined at the board’s April meeting.

For the first time, those price hikes include e-cigarettes, which were only subject to sales tax until now. By including e-cigarettes, the new taxes could be especially effective in deterring kids from starting a nicotine habit, said Knox.

According to the state’s California Healthy Kids Survey, middle and high school teens use e-cigarettes at much higher rates than traditional cigarettes. Studies also show that teens who use e-cigarettes are three times more likely to start smoking traditional cigarettes within a year.

“All the studies show that price (helps keep) kids from starting to smoke,” Knox said. “They have the least disposable income, so the price increase tends to be the greatest deterrent to kids.”

In California, 67 percent of current and former smokers start by age 18, according to state Department of Public Health surveys, which is campaigning against candy- and fruit-flavored tobacco products deemed attractive to teens and young adults.

Overall, adult smoking rates have dropped significantly in California, from 17.1 percent in 1999 to 11.7 percent in 2013, according to California Department of Public Health statistics. Except for Utah, California has the lowest rate of smoking prevalence of any state.

But it still exacts a hefty health and financial toll. According to a 2014 study by the University of California, San Francisco, smoking cost the state an estimated $18.1 billion and accounted for one in every seven deaths.

Some cigarette retailers are bracing for a drop in sales. Indi Kulvinder, owner of Gold Star Mart in downtown Sacramento, does a brisk business selling single packs of cigarettes, from Marlboros to menthols. But he expects the new tax will crush his tobacco sales by 20 to 25 percent. “It’s definitely going to hurt us,” said Kulvinder, who said sales of tobacco products comprise about 40 percent of his business.

A pack of Natural American Spirit cigarettes that last week cost $7.25 now goes for nearly $10, Kulvinder said.

“Prices are going to pinch a little for those who smoke. They’ve got to handle an extra $70 to $80 a month” due to the tax hike, he said. As a result, many longtime customers, he said, are saying they’ll cut back on purchases or will quit tobacco altogether.

Health officials and anti-tobacco groups acknowledge it’s not always easy to kick deeply ingrained nicotine habits.

“It’s hard because the addictive component of nicotine is hardwired into your brain, along with the behavioral aspect of smoking,” said Dr. Elisa Tong, with UC Davis Health. A cigarette with your morning coffee or lighting up after drinks and dinner becomes such a routine part of daily living, she said, it often requires fortitude to break those established routines.

She said the first few weeks of trying to quit are the most challenging, when it’s not unusual for smokers to feel stressed out, grumpy, irritable, anxious or depressed as they wean off nicotine. Seven aids approved by the Food and Drug Administration can help smokers quit, including nicotine patches, gum, lozenges, inhalers and nasal sprays, as well as prescription pills to help relieve cravings. They can “take the edge off nicotine withdrawal symptoms, that I-need-a-cigarette feeling” that is especially hard to squelch during the first few weeks of quitting, Tong said.

In 2013, Tong spearheaded a program used at University of California medical centers where doctors directly linked patients through electronic medical records to the California Smokers’ Helpline, a free counseling service of the California Department of Public Health. It offers one-to-one counseling and services in multiple languages for smokers and their families (see box).

Among the roughly 40,000 people a year who call the smokers’ helpline, the average age is about 50, with some as young as 14 or others in their 90s, according to the helpline.

Jerry Moncrease, a Rancho Cordova resident who started smoking at age 9, said it took the combination of a nicotine patch and the California Smokers’ Helpline (800-NO-BUTTS) to break his lifelong habit.

“You need somebody to coach you through this,” Moncrease said. “Without the help of a patch and 800 No Butts calling me every day, I couldn’t have done it on my own. They’d talk me through it.”

Now 61, the retired cosmetologist said he hasn’t had a cigarette in about seven years. He feels healthier, food tastes better and he’s saving some money. Keeping up a daily cigarette habit was expensive enough when he quit, Moncrease said, but with today’s extra $2 tax the cost is “going up like crazy.”

Lots of smokers are just now confronting the new financial hit.

At a downtown convenience store last week, Jesse Algiere, a state Department of Fish and Game employee on his lunch break, said he would probably “suck it up and pay it,” noting that he got accustomed to higher cigarette taxes living in Hawaii, where the current rate is $3.20 a pack, the fifth highest in the country.

His buddy, Ron Wooden, who works for the state Wildlife Conservation Board, said he’s now considering quitting, but “until I get the gumption to quit, I’ll be paying it.”

Seen on The Sacramento Bee.