Some unfazed by higher cigarette taxes, others try to quit

Kumar Shah, owner of Cigarette City in Woodstock, demonstrates how to use a cigarette making machine, which he says has become a popular item since the tax on cigarettes has gone up.
Kumar Shah, owner of Cigarette City in Woodstock, demonstrates how to use a cigarette making machine, which he says has become a popular item since the tax on cigarettes has gone up.

CRYSTAL LAKE – Cigarette prices are more expensive than ever, and new taxes could push them even higher.

Smokers naturally oppose these so-called sin taxes as do those who sell tobacco products. Others, however, believe that the taxes are fair and motivate people to quit.

The high taxes on cigarettes probably have taken a toll on his business, but Kumar Shah doesn’t think many of his customers at Cigarette City in Woodstock have quit over rising prices. They look for less expensive alternatives.

“It’s a habit,” he said. “They are going for cheaper brands or roll-your-own cigarettes.”

Shah has seen customers haul in jars full of pennies to buy smokes, but he has seen only a few of his regulars give it up altogether. His sales are down about 20 percent this year, largely because of the economy. He sells fewer cartons and more individual packs.

“Because of the economy, a lot of people are more stressed out, so they smoke more,” Shah said.

Both the state and the federal government levy a tax on every pack of cigarettes sold. Illinois puts 98 cents on top of the federal tax of $1.01, bringing the price of most name-brand packs to around $5 in McHenry County.

Taxes in many other states, including New York ($2.75) and Wisconsin ($2.52), are much higher, according to the Tax Foundation.

However, Illinois legislators are considering adding an additional $1 to the state cigarette tax to fund higher education programs.

As a rule, higher prices mean fewer cigarettes are sold, said Harold Wimmer, CEO for the American Lung Association in greater Chicago.

“We find that an increase in price equates to a reduction in consumption,” he said. “And the American Lung Association supports higher taxes for just that reason.”

For every 10 percent increase in price, consumption falls by about 3 percent, Wimmer said.

When the higher federal taxes on tobacco went into effect April 1, calls to the Illinois Tobacco Quitline (866-784-8937) increased by 48 percent, Wimmer said. The Quitline is a free service offered to smokers in Illinois and is operated by the American Lung Association.

About 20 percent of Illinois adults smoke, according to 2006 statistics from the Illinois Department of Public Health. That’s down from about 24 percent in 1998.

Although Shah and other cigarette store owners might not see it, smokers are kicking the habit, said Debra Quackenbush, spokeswoman for the McHenry County Health Department. The department offers five or six classes each year to help people quit. Health Department smoking-cessation classes run for seven weeks and boast a 70 percent success rate, Quackenbush said.

“Many have cited the expense of smoking as the reason for quitting,” Quackenbush said. “When it hits the pocketbook, people think twice.”

Interest in the smoking-cessation classes tend to peak right after Jan. 1 when people make New Year’s resolutions, she said. More information on the classes is available through the Health Department Web site, www.co.mchenry.il.us/departments/health.

The health consequences of smoking are well known to most and many smokers want to quit but can’t, said Dr. Rajeev Varma, a pulmonologist at Mercy Harvard Hospital Clinic.

“They have chosen a reason for quitting that is more important to them than smoking,” he said.

Varma doesn’t recommend going cold turkey. He usually recommends some type of nicotine replacement therapy or medications such as varenicline, more commonly known as Chantix.

A steady stream of patients work with Megan Sanders, a tobacco treatment specialist at Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital in Barrington, to develop a plan for quitting. Most of her patients have been referred by a doctor and have been advised to quit because of health issues.

Quitting isn’t easy, but Sanders helps patients to create an individualized program tailored to meet their needs.

Generally, people are more successful when they use a smoking-cessation aid in conjunction with counseling or a support group, Sanders said. Advocate Good Shepherd has its own free support group which meets the first Wednesday of each month. More information on the group is available by calling 847-842-4847.

Smokers who fail to kick the habit shouldn’t be discouraged, she said.

“Try not to think of each attempt as a failure,” she said. “Think of it as a step in the right direction.”

To get help

Illinois Tobacco Quitline: 866-784-8937

Advocate Good Shepherd support group: 800-323-8622

McHenry County Health Department: 815-334-4510

Centegra smoking cessation classes: 815-759-4455

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