By Emmanuel Bustos
The going theory is that increased cigarette taxes will either benefit the health of smokers, by forcing them to cut down their habit; or the health of the economy, by turning over greater revenues. In 2002 alone, seventeen U.S. states increased their cigarette taxes. This logic ignores some key facts: all cigarette taxes are not created equal, and anyone with a nicotine addiction or an enterprising mind has the ability to cross over state lines.
West Virginia's state tax is seventeen cents a pack, North Carolina's is five cents, Kentucky's is three cents, and Virginia's is just two-point-five cents. New York, on the other hand, throws a whopping $1.50 in taxes atop an already pricey box of smokes. Cigarettes purchased in North Carolina and sold in New York City turn a profit of almost $30 per carton.
In Western New York, a federal task force was formed to crack down on illegal cigarette smuggling activity. In the first half of this year, local, state and federal authorities seized truckloads of what they claim are illegal cigarettes, at an estimated value of over $1.5 million. Similar task forces are being set up across the country, though they are not likely to catch small time "smugglers" like John Cholook, a third-year student at NYU.
Cholook regularly travels to West Virginia, where he can buy four cartons of cigarettes for $65. "There's no way I'm going to pay almost ten bucks for a pack of cigarettes," he says.
Cholook is part of a greater phenomena of college students in New York City, who travel long distances to bring back relatively small quantities of cigarettes, supporting their own habits and, in some cases, that of friends. Are they technically smugglers? The answer is foggy, at best, and chances are that they will never be reprimanded. Still, some students, like NYU fourth-year Brooke Gassel, would rather quit buying than cross that line.
"I smoked a half-a-pack a day for a few years, and [now], living in New York ... I never even buy them anymore," she says. "Smoking is not worth it, food is, and at seven bucks a pop, I'd rather get fish and chips."
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