New Jersey May Raise Cigarette Taxes to Highest Level in Nation

By 

THE NEW YORK TIMES

Feb. 25, 2020

Maria Ovalles stacks packets of cigarettes at Cibao Mini Market in North Bergen, N.J. Smokers could soon be paying more.Credit...

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UNION, N.J. — Zahir Shabazz smokes about three packs of cigarettes each week. Each time, he hands a cashier $10, give or take, and a slim pack of Newports appears, feeding a habit of nearly 30 years.

He said he knows it is time to quit. “It’s too much,” he said.

But Mr. Shabazz, 42, of Union, N.J., could soon wind up paying even more.

Gov. Philip D. Murphy is expected to release a proposed budget on Tuesday that includes a $1.65 increase in New Jersey’s cigarette tax, two policy advisers said. If it is approved, the tax on each pack would climb to the nation’s highest statewide level, $4.35. Smokers would also pay a state sales tax.

The extra tax would generate an estimated $218 million a year and would push New Jersey into a tie for No. 1 with New York and Connecticut, which both collect $4.35 a pack in taxes. The lowest cigarette taxes are in Missouri, which charges 17 cents a pack.

The effort to boost New Jersey’s cigarette tax for the first time since July 2009 comes as many states and the federal government have moved to limit access to nicotine, a highly addictive drug. Higher cigarette taxes are a strong incentive for persuading smokers to quit, according to anti-tobacco advocates.

The federal government in December raised the legal smoking age to 21 and this month ended the sale of some vaping products, including fruit-flavored cartridges, or pods, that are used in e-cigarettes and are popular with teenagers.

Last month, New Jersey became the second state to outlaw the sale of most flavored vaping liquids, though a bill to ban the sale of menthol cigarettes stalled in the Legislature.

The rate of cigarette usage among adults in New Jersey and nationwide has been steadily declining.

In New Jersey, about 13 percent of adults smoked cigarettes in 2018, down from 17 percent in 2011, according to the state Department of Health. Across the country, about 13.7 percent of adults smoked in 2018, down from 21 percent in 2005, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Still, cigarette smoking remains the leading preventable cause of death in the United States, resulting in about 480,000 deaths every year.

If the price of a pack of cigarettes were to climb close to $12, Mr. Shabazz said he would probably quit for good.

“It’s a mental thing,” he said. “$10 — that’s it.”

He approves of the tax increase.

“It’s going to help somebody stop smoking,” said Mr. Shabazz, who was about 13 when he started. “At least that’s the plan, I hope.”

Mr. Shabazz is not alone among smokers. One 2013 study found that about 25 percent of smokers supported tax increases as a way to force them to quit.

Some cities, like New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C., where the tax on a pack of cigarettes is $4.50, also impose their own levies.

When taxes increase, cigarette sales decline, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

“It’s the most effective way to reduce tobacco use,” said Matthew L. Myers, president of the campaign, the largest anti-tobacco public advocacy group in the world.

“Raising taxes reduces tobacco use and increases revenue — both in ways that we can predict.”

The campaign, using an algorithm it updates each year, estimates that a $1.65 increase in tobacco taxes in New Jersey would lead 46,300 adults to stop smoking, including 4,600 smokers age 18 to 26.

A spokesman for the tobacco manufacturer Altria, David B. Sutton, said the proposal was unfair to adult smokers. Excise taxes like the one proposed in New Jersey also “create additional incentives for illicit trade,” Mr. Sutton said in a statement.

“Criminal organizations exploit these higher costs by selling smuggled, counterfeit, illegally imported and stolen tobacco products,” he said. “Illicit activity deprives governments of tax revenue and hurts law-abiding businesses.”

The budget proposal by Mr. Murphy, a Democrat, must be approved by the Democrat-led Assembly and Senate. Spokesmen for the majority leaders in each house had no immediate comment.

Jamal Amrany, the manager of Quick Convenience store in Union, said cigarettes are already a “tough business” because of high costs associated with stocking a wide variety of brands and a profit margin that is lower than on other items he sells.

But he said he does not believe longtime smokers would be affected by an increase, even one as high as $1.65. “They’ll complain,” he said, “but they have to have it.”

Nine of the cigarette tax increases across the nation since 2002 were passed by voters in ballot initiatives, including California’s $2 per pack increase, which passed in November 2016.

Michael Stephenson, 63, of Montclair, N.J., said he stopped smoking about 20 years ago, partially because of the price.

He said the addiction is powerful, but money can be a strong motivator.

“Hopefully,” Mr. Stephenson said, “people will get smart and decide they don’t want to pay that much.”

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