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NEW YORK — At Island Smokes on New York City's Lower East Side, customers sick of the highest tax on cigarettes in America are fighting back by rolling their own cigarettes out of pipe tobacco.It's a way around New York City's sky-high cigarette taxes, which have led to a 35 percent drop in smoking rates since 2002, when city anti-smoking initiatives began. according to Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Among New York City public school students the drop is sharper, down 52 percent since 2001, the New York City Department of Health says.
But while city residents may be smoking less, the high taxes — which boost the cost of cigarettes to as high as $15 a pack — have fueled a black market in contraband cigarettes.
All over New York City, runners hawk untaxed, $5-a-pack smokes on city street corners. Newsstand owners pocket city and state taxes with each cheap pack. And Indian reservations flood the market with contraband cigarettes.
State law requires that reservations sell cigarettes only to tribe members, but last year the smoke shops on the tiny Poospatuck Indian reservation on Long Island sold more than 4 million cartons. That would require every man, woman and child on the reservation to smoke 523 packs a day, the city charged in court papers last fall, complaining those cigarettes were being sold, illegally, in New York City.
At Island Smokes, customers pay $4.50 per pack if they make one pack of cigarettes; the price drops to $3 a pack if they make an entire carton of 10 packs. By comparison, one pack of 20 cigarettes averages $11 to $13 in the city and can be as high as $15.
Customers don't actually roll the cigarettes themselves but use a speedy "RYO" (Roll Your Own) machine that squirts the tobacco into a hollow paper-and-filter ensemble. A carton takes about half an hour to make.
As he made his smokes, Lucky Strike smoker Christopher Geist recalled what led him here.
Heading north from Florida to join the Occupy Wall Street movement, his cigarette costs skyrocketed from $4.50 a pack in Florida to $6 in Washington and to $8 in Philadelphia. In Virginia, a friend warned him about New York City.