April 14, 2010 in City

Washington tax may send smokers east

Extra $1 doesn’t sit well with tobacco users
By The Spokesman-Review
 
Kathy Plonka photo

Washington’s cigarette tax hike is “job security in my eyes,” said Kendall Shedd, who works at the Seltice Way Stop ’N Go in Stateline.kathypl@spokesman.com
(Full-size photo)

By the numbers

$3: Total tax on a pack of cigarettes in Washington state, an increase of $1, which raises the cost per pack to about $8.

57 cents: Total tax on a pack of cigarettes in Idaho, where the cost per pack is less than $5.

Cigarettes soon will cost about $8 a pack as Washington legislators add another $1 in taxes.

The higher state taxes – which brings the total on every pack to $3 – is part of the recently adopted plan to raise $800 million and close the budget gap without cutting more programs and state jobs.

Some Spokane smokers say the legislation may turn them into scofflaws.

“I just might have to start driving to Idaho,” said Anna, who works in finance at a downtown Spokane business and asked that her last name not be disclosed. She is miffed by the higher taxes on something she says she enjoys as a recreational activity.

“The state isn’t interested in protecting my health,” she said. “They just want my money. It’s unfair.”

Other smokers say the latest sales tax hike unfairly targets the poor and minorities.

Data from the Spokane Regional Health District notes that while the adult smoking rates have dropped, the proportion of those who continue to light up is higher among the poor and less educated.

And despite years of education and thousands of dollars spent trying to curb youth smoking, the rate of young smokers had risen to 13 percent between 2004 and 2008.

For Candice Lyons, cigarettes are a better vice than alcohol and drugs. Lyons, who is in her 30s, is a recovering addict, homeless and unemployed.

“I’d like to quit, but right now, smoking helps me cope with the stress of just trying to get by,” she said. “I already donate plasma just so we can get cigarettes.”

Smokers have been banned from bars and restaurants, turned out of office buildings and now can’t puff within 25 feet of a door. It’s turned them into social pariahs, Lyons said.

Businesses that shun state rules are investigated, warned and ultimately fined.

The health district last month announced plans to add a part-time employee in anticipation of investigating an extra 40 complaints against businesses a month.

The law against smoking in public places has been in effect for five years and has dropped the number of workers exposed to secondhand smoke by 44 percent in Spokane County.

Anti-smoking laws and the higher taxes are part of the state’s concerted effort to get people to stop smoking.

The legislation raising cigarette taxes has been sent to Gov. Chris Gregoire. The bill would increase taxes on other goods such as cigars and chewing tobacco.

Democrats say the higher taxes may force people to quit smoking. Republicans contend the bill may send people to other states to get their nicotine fix.

Just across the state line in Idaho, where the cigarette tax is about 57 cents a pack, stores offer cigarettes for less than $5 a pack.

Cigarettes brought into Washington from Idaho are considered contraband according to state law.

Outside a downtown Spokane bank building, an employee who didn’t want his name used because he said his wife doesn’t know he smokes, wanted to know if smokers should be rewarded state privileges for their role in balancing the state budget and saving jobs.

“We’re waiting to hear,” he said with a smile as he extinguished a cigarette on a wet sidewalk and then threw the butt into a trash can.


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