x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

NYC smokers inflamed

The policies of New York's mayor have cultivated strong support from health advocates and strident opposition from diehard smokers.

New York's smokers are puffing nervously in the face of new measures that make their habit the most expensive in the US.
New York's smokers are puffing nervously in the face of new measures that make their habit the most expensive in the US.

"You called me just the moment I stuck my hands in compost," says the woman on the phone.

I have called the home of Audrey Silk, the Brooklyn-based president of Citizens Lobbying Against Smoker Harassment. Her smokers' rights organisation in New York City is dedicated to repealing Mayor Michael Bloomberg's strict anti-smoking policy, which has included leading the way on bans in workplaces and championing tax hikes on cigarettes.Ms Silk, a lifelong smoker, is so adamant about not paying these taxes that she grows her own tobacco and composts rubbish for the soil.

"One plant can make about four packs," calculates Ms Silk, a retired police officer.

The policies of New York's mayor have cultivated strong support from health advocates and strident opposition from diehard smokers. Known as a deft businessman with an independent streak, Mr Bloomberg has made reducing smoking a hallmark of his three terms in office. Many colleagues and pundits have questioned the political capital he stakes on anti-smoking legislation, but he continues to root out tobacco in his city with the zeal of a latter-day Elliot Ness.

This summer, Mr Bloomberg deflected more brickbats after pushing to extend the smoking ban to public parks and beaches. In July, he watched the fruition of a US$1.60 (Dh5.88) state tax increase on cigarettes he had endorsed.

But now that cigarettes in New York City rank among the priciest in the world, one thing is abundantly clear: smoking can make you broke. Gerri Bresler earns a living selling jewellery on a Manhattan street corner. Smoking runs in her family. "Every day when I was a kid, I used to pick up three packs for my mother," says the 52 year old. "They were 30 cents back then."

These days, a packet of cigarettes costs about $11. Of that, $1.01 goes to federal tax, $4.35 to the state and $1.50 to the city. The excise taxes do not include the city's regular sales taxes of more than 8 per cent.

In comparison, the state of Missouri has the nation's lowest cigarette tax at only $0.17.

Now, with a pack-a-day habit, Ms Bresler says she has to budget almost $400 per month for cigarettes. "It's crazy," she says.

But for many politicians these taxes make perfect sense - either people smoke less and lawmakers declare a public health victory, or they keep smoking and the government raises lots of money. Indeed, the latest round of state taxes on cigarettes was pushed as a way to close a $9 billion budget gap.

Over in Brooklyn, I spot a young man smoking beside a pizza parlour and think of asking for a cigarette. Such favours are things of the past and I offer to pay him for one. "A lot of people want a dollar to bum a cigarette now, but I don't do that," says Anwar Anwar, a contract construction worker. Mr Anwar says he can't afford to smoke anymore - he's 20 and when he started a few years ago, a pack was only $6.50 - but he feels he has little choice. "It doesn't matter because people are addicted to cigarettes. They're still going to smoke regardless - even if it's $15."

For some holdouts, the tax hikes are ineffective deterrents. Others do see an added incentive to quit. But until these people actually kick the habit - on average, it takes eight to 11 attempts before a smoker stops for good - nicotine fixes are expensive orders to fill. This financial hit can be especially painful for the city's low-income smokers, while others say the higher taxes have benefited an important demographic: young people.

"We know from studies these taxes are cutting down overall smoking among youth - they're quitting and smoking less cigarettes if they do smoke," says Dr Donna Vallone, the senior vice president of research and evaluation at the American Legacy Foundation. "A 10 per cent increase in the price of cigarettes, for example, cuts smoking among youth by 7 per cent."

One of the keys to a successful approach, Dr Vallone says, is offering people who want to quit resources to help achieve their goal. That way, she says, they don't have to go broke while trying to break an addiction.

"We really encourage states and local governments to complement the effects of excise taxes by investing in effective tobacco control programmes," she says.

Dr Vallone and other researchers say the most dramatic drops in smoking are credited to strategies that combine limiting places where people can smoke, media campaigns, excise taxes and providing free counselling and smoking cessation medicine.

When Mr Bloomberg came into office in 2002, one of his first orders of business was to pass an anti-smoking act that included the elements Dr Vallone lists. During the debate over the law - a recession then, as now, was under way and it had been only a few months since the September 11 terrorist attacks - many impugned the mayor for his timing and the supposedly misspent urgency he devoted to this issue. But today, people in the public health field view his actions as a ringing success.

In 2002, 1.3 million adults in New York City, or 21.5 per cent of the population, smoked. In 2008, that number had dwindled to 959,000 adults, or 15.8 per cent of the population. Also, in just the first four years after Mr Bloomberg's landmark legislation there was an impressive 34.9 per cent decrease in the prevalence of smoking among young people between 18 and 24.

Dr Susan Kansagra, the city's assistant commissioner for the Bureau of Tobacco Control, says the dramatic drop in smoking was made possible by Mr Bloomberg's tough stand. "Smoking, like other things, follows basic economic trends," she says. "When the price of something goes up, people tend to use less of it. So taxes really are one of the main tools we have."

On a recent chilly autumn evening, Rowena Kennedy-Epstein lights one of the cigarettes she bought for $12.80 from an East Village corner store. The adjunct English professor says she has already nixed store-bought coffee and eating out during the recession. Since a cigarette tax hike a year ago, she's also cut down from a pack a day to one every three days. "It's one of my last big splurges for non-essential items," she says. "I think I can't even do this anymore."

And that should be music to the mayor's ears.