Published: Saturday, May 2, 2009 10:57 PM CDT
Although calls to the American Cancer Society's Quitline went up more than 800 percent in Texas during the weeks surrounding the tax increase on cigarettes, local smokers and area business managers say the cost is causing more anger among smokers than it is creating a significant dent in Tall City tobacco use rates.
"As long as they've got the money they'll keep buying 'em," said Kevin Pool, owner of Basin Candy and Tobacco.
Pool, who is also on the board of the Texas Grocery and Convenience Association, said some have switched to generic brands of cigarettes, but overall the orders he's receiving from West Texas retailers have remained consistent despite the price increase.
Since the federal tax increase on cigarettes went into place about a month ago, the average price for a package of cigarettes in Texas is nearly $6, according to area retailers, with the price for a carton running around $50.
Lighting up Friday night, Geoffrey Richardson said while he's still upset about the increase he called absurd and unfair, he's not about to give up his habit.
"I've been smoking 43 years and, no, it's not going to make me quit," he said. "I do what I want to do. At the same time it's (price increase) extremely ridiculous."
Anti-smoking advocates, though, say the price hike combined with moves by area hospitals to go smoke free have been making a difference.
With the Permian Basin reporting higher smoking rates than Texas as a whole at about 23 percent compared with state averages of 18 percent, said Betty Bradley with the Permian Basin Regional Council on Alcohol & Drug Abuse, anything to curb tobacco use in West Texas is welcomed.
"We're seeing more and more," she said, of people looking to quit.
To help spur a drop in area smoking rates, state grants have been specified for Midland, Ector and other surrounding counties that entitle those who call the Quitline from the Permian Basin to free nicotine patches if they undergo counseling through the phone line and meet other qualifications.
"A lot of people have tried to quit in the past either cold turkey or with medications," said Sebita Singh, who works with the employee wellness program at Midland Memorial Hospital. "The counseling that they get is the most important element."
In March, 593 Texans called the American Cancer Society Quitline, up from 317 in March 2008, with the majority of calls coming in the last weeks of March right before the cigarette tax increase took effect, according to a recent report.
Ector County had 73 calls in March, more than Dallas or San Antonio where the highest call volume is typically recorded. Midland has just less than 20 calls, Bradley said, which is still an increase from previous years and months.
After realizing her smoking habit was quickly becoming as expensive as a car payment, Cathy Fowler, development and public relations coordinator at Palmer Drug Abuse Program, said she called the Quitline.
She said she's not alone as they've referred several to the Quitline who contacted PDAP, with many saying it's simply not financially feasible for them to continue smoking and paying the rest of their bills.
Call volume has dropped a little as Texans get used to the price increase, though daily calls are still up from last year, Bradley said. Whether all those trying to quit will follow through may be the real test as experts say it typically takes more than five attempts at quitting for a smoker to permanently give up the habit.
Singh said part of success depends on creating a personalized plan as the time and methods it will require for someone to quit vary widely. If someone gives in during a particularly difficult withdrawal before the quit date they've set as a goal, she said, they'll work with people to set a new one and continue through the process.
"Nicotine addiction is insidious in a way," Bradley said. "It is a drug and it is addictive."
Getting people to quit, she said, is not only important for their own health, but also for those who die each year as a result of second-hand smoke.
Smoking, according to the American Cancer Society, remains the single largest preventable cause of disease and death in the U.S., accounting for 443,000 premature deaths each year including 38,000 non-smokers.
Half of those who continue smoking, according to the American Cancer Society, will die as a result of the habit.
Those still smoking, though, say they're aware the habit is unhealthy. But, they say, it's not the government's place to urge them to quit by collecting tax revenue for federal programs.
"Why are they trying to do this?" Richardson said. "I don't know."
Additional dollars brought in by the tax will go toward the State Children's Health Insurance Program and are projected to increase federal tax revenue from tobacco products by $6.4 billion during Fiscal Year 2010, according to a Congressional research report.
Debbie Erskine, who also said she's upset about the increase, said when friends are going to New Mexico she now pays them to bring her back cigarettes that run about $30 less per cartoon than they do in Texas since state taxes are lower there.
Though they're a different brand than she usually smokes, she said the savings is worth the switch.
And while the local Smoker's Outlet stores have seen a slight drop in sales, said Amy Neifert, who manages purchasing for area Smoker's Outlet stores, they saw such an increase in people buying up cigarettes before the tax took effect it hasn't made a difference. Overall, she and other area retailers said, customers don't seem to be changing their habits.
The parent company of Philip Morris USA, Altria Group, reported its first quarter cigarette revenue was down about 8 percent.
If the price goes up again, said Richardson as he tapped his cigarette on the nearby ashtray, it still won't force him to quit, he'll simply start buying online.
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