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Smoke break gets more expensive with tax boost

Associated Press | 4/1/2009, 5:24 a.m.


Eric Lindblom, research director for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, says he expects a drop of at least 6 percent to 7 percent among young smokers.

Philip Gorham, who tracks the tobacco business for Morningstar, the investment research firm, said he expects an overall drop of 4 percent to 5 percent this year. What happens after that is less certain, especially as the economy recovers.

“I would expect a road bump this year,” said Gorham. “But these companies will still be extremely profitable. I still think they will make their return on capital by wide margins in the long run.”

Philip Morris USA, the largest tobacco company and maker of Marlboro, is forecasting a drop, but spokesman Bill Phelps said he cannot predict how big it will be. Philip Morris raised Marlboro prices by 71 cents a pack early last month, and prices on smaller brands by 81 cents a pack. Other major companies followed suit.

The pricing moves raised eyebrows.

“That’s nothing more than greed,” said Kevin Altman, an industry consultant who advises small tobacco companies. “They weren’t required to charge that until April 1. They are just putting that into their pockets.”

Responded Phelps: “We raised our prices in direct response to the federal excise tax increase, and people who are upset about that should find out how their member of Congress voted, and contact him or her.”

Some policy analysts have questioned the wisdom of boosting tobacco taxes to finance health care for children. They argue that the fate of such a broad program should not depend on revenues derived from a minority of the adult population, many of whom have low incomes and are hooked on a habit. The tobacco industry is also warning that the steep increase will lead to tax evasion through old-fashioned smuggling or by Internet purchase from abroad.

But smoking control advocates such as Lindblom say tobacco taxes should be even higher.

“There’s a lot of room to go after cigars and smokeless [tobacco],” he said. “We are certainly hopeful that health care reform will include some more increases.”

Standing outside a Washington department store, attorney Margaret Webster, 42, puffed on a Marlboro Ultra Light and lamented the fact that the government is reaching deeper into her pocketbook.

“I don’t think we (smokers) like it,” she said. “But I’ve heard so many people say they were going to quit when the price went up … and they’re still smoking.”

(Associated Press)