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Smoking Kills... Poor New Yorkers' Wallets

Poorer smokers in New York state spend 25% of their incomes on cigarettes, prompting some to question the fairness of taxes.

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Poor smokers are taxed up to the lungs in
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By Bryan Le

09/20/12

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Low-income smokers in the state of New York spend a quarter of their income on smokes, a new study shows. On average, they'll blow 23.6% of a $30,000 salary on cigarettes—nearly twice the national average. (Meanwhile smokers earning $60,000 or more spend on average just two percent of their incomes on cigs.) New York State has the highest cigarette tax in the US—at $4.35 a pack—and New York City dwellers pay an extra $1.50 on top of that. The tax was set in the name of good health, but some question the justice of it. “The poor pay $600 million in cigarette taxes and get little help in quitting,” says Russ Sciandra of the American Cancer Society. The authors of the study write: "Although high cigarette taxes are an effective method for reducing cigarette smoking, they can impose a significant financial burden on low-income smokers."

New York's taxes have helped cut the state's habit by 20% between 2003 and 2010, but they haven't made a dent in the smoking rate among poorer citizens. Critics see the taxes as unfairly punitive to the poor: “It busts their theory that high taxes equal submission to their coercive measure,” claims Audrey Silk of Citizens Lobbying Against Smoker Harassment. Telling penniless puffers to quit is easy, but the expense of some quit-smoking aids can be an issue—some opt instead to pick up cheaper roll-your-own cigs that are even more unhealthy. However, New York state does offer a free smoker's quitline, and can provide a starter kit of nicotine patches, gum or lozenges for those who qualify. Poor smokers in NYC can utilize quit-smoking clinics that offer meds and counseling at little or no cost. Still, “They can be a hard-to-reach population,” says health department spokesman Peter Constantakes.

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