August 26, 2010 in Nation/World

Cuba axes tobacco subsidy

Seniors no longer get cheap cigarettes
Will Weissert Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

A flower vendor smokes a cigarette in Havana. The communist government announced Wednesday it is cutting cigarettes from ration books effective Sept. 1.
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

HAVANA – A program that provided state-subsidized smokes to Cuban seniors is headed for the ash heap.

The communist government announced Wednesday it is cutting cigarettes from its monthly ration books effective Sept. 1, the latest in a series of small steps toward fully eliminating subsidies for food and other basic items that impoverished islanders depend on.

Cubans 55 and older had been eligible to receive three packs of “strong” cigarettes and a pack of milds – 80 cigarettes altogether per month – for 6.50 pesos, or the equivalent of about 30 cents, using their ration books at state-run distribution centers.

The island’s lowest-quality cigarettes, the only kinds subsidized, normally cost 7 pesos, or about 33 cents, per pack, while imported or top-flight domestic brands can go for $3 or more apiece.

Until the 1990s, all Cubans 18 and older received a monthly allotment of cigarettes, but the loss of billions of dollars in annual subsidies from the collapsed Soviet Union forced officials to scale back subsidized smoking. Now even older smokers are out of luck.

“I’m insulted because it’s another thing they are taking away from us,” said Angela Jimenez, a 64-year-old retiree who lives on a monthly pension of 200 pesos, or about $10.40. Jimenez first took up smoking at 17 but says she will now have to quit because she won’t be able to afford it. “I don’t know how far they’re going to go with this,” she said of the subsidy cuts.

The government’s announcement made no mention of the health benefits of quitting smoking, saying only that the move was “part of the steps gradually being applied to eliminate subsidies.”

Cigarettes are just the latest item to be scrapped from the ration book: Peas and potatoes were dumped in November.

In an additional cost-cutting measure this summer, the government shuttered scores of workplace cafeterias that had fed state employees for virtually nothing, instead giving qualifying Cubans stipends to buy their own food. So far, nearly 250,000 people have seen their government lunches disappear – and officials say further cuts are coming.

Under the existing subsidy system, even nonsmokers accepted cigarette rations, which they then sold on the black market, charging at least 21/2 times the subsidized price per pack. Others traded them for rationed items such as salt, sugar, beans, meat, rice, eggs or bread.

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