Everyone knows that cigarettes are bad for you, but in New York state these days, buying a pack of smokes may do almost as much harm to your wallet as to your health.
Starting Sept. 1, the tax on cigarettes sold in the state increased by $1, from $4.35 to $5.35, raising the overall price of cigarettes to over $15 per pack — the highest in the nation.
This is the state’s first cigarette tax increase in a decade, which was implemented as part of the $229 billion state budget for 2023. According to Gov. Kathy Hochul, the reason for the tax increase, besides bringing in more revenue, is to try to deter people from smoking. It is projected to generate an additional $1.3 billion in revenue, which lawmakers say will be used to fund anti-smoking programs and initiatives, including research and education.
“Raising the cigarette tax is going to save the lives of over 15,000 New Yorkers —- it’s a common-sense measure that will make cigarettes less affordable and discourage people from smoking, especially young people,” Hochul said in February.
Some residents, however, don’t exactly agree that this is the best approach at helping New Yorkers who are currently addicted to nicotine. “Upping the price is certainly a deterrent. It does make you think twice about buying cigarettes because it is a huge strain on the budget, but will this make me quit? It hasn’t worked thus far,” said Wilma Cruz, a local resident and smoker trying to kick the habit.
The governor has been on a mission to push younger generations of New Yorkers away from smoking. She recently proposed a ban on the sale and possession of menthol and other types of flavored tobacco products. Although that proposal was left out of the budget, rejected by Democratic lawmakers in the state Assembly and Senate, discussion of, and support for, the ban have been picking back up now that the Food and Drug Administration has jumped on board and proposed a new federal ban on menthol-flavored products.
Hazel Dukes, president of the New York state chapter of the NAACP, recently announced her support for the ban, saying, “Banning menthol-flavored products will save the lives of thousands of New Yorkers, mostly Black and brown smokers.” Dukes added, “Menthols make it easier to get addicted to tobacco, leading to a higher rate of deaths for Black smokers.”
But local activists Ray Ramos and Sylvia Miranda, of the National Latino Officers Association — a police advocacy group dedicated to bridging the gap between law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve — say that the endorsement by Dukes is a contradiction of everything the NAACP historically stands for.
“Prohibitions don’t work,” Miranda said. “What results from prohibition is a thriving illegal underground market to fulfill a need” — with examples throughout history, she said. According to a report by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, New York state already has the highest inbound smuggling activity in the country, with an estimated 53.5 percent of cigarettes consumed in the state in 2020 having been smuggled in from outside its borders and sold illegally.
According to Ramos, a military veteran who also has 20 years of experience in the New York City Police Department — as both a community affairs officer and a detective in internal affairs — a ban on menthol tobacco products would only add to the problems of unnecessary police interactions and the over-policing of Black and brown communities, like Hempstead. “We don’t need any more Eric Garner situations,” Ramos said, adding that criminalizing menthol would essentially criminalize a mental health crisis, since that is what addiction is.
Ramos said that such a ban would lead not only to an increase in unnecessary crime, including selling and buying illegal and unregulated cigarettes on the street, but also to an increase in civilian complaints, and would further strain the relationship between the community and law enforcement. It would also create problems where there currently aren’t any, Ramos said, with more stress on police resources.
“If you’re going to ban tobacco, just ban the whole thing,” Miranda said. “Tobacco affects everybody in terms of health outcomes, so just ban tobacco. Don’t be selective in banning something that’s preferred by communities of color, which is going to create unintended consequences.”
Instead of prohibition and criminalization, the National Latino Officers Association advocates the reallocation of funding into mental health resources. “We believe that in order to address an addiction, there should be a medical model — which consists of education, counseling and treatment,” Miranda said. “These are the three steps that need to be taken in order to treat an addiction — not a ban, not prohibition."
Miranda pointed out that in the same budget that increases the tax on cigarettes by $1, $502 million has been allocated to battle opioid addiction. This funding includes the expansion of medication-assisted treatment programs; increased access to naloxone, a medication that can reverse an opioid overdose; training for first responders and health care providers; and money for prevention, education and outreach as well as support for recovery services.
Miranda also noted the racial disparity between the mostly white demographic that uses opioids at higher rates, and the funding it received for addiction services, and the mostly Black and brown demographic that use menthol cigarettes at higher rates and the state’s response to that crisis, which she believes should be providing resources instead of criminalization — an assertion that residents, like Wilma Cruz, agree with.
“At the very least, things like patches, gums, mints and other types of aids to help quit smoking should be covered by insurance so you can get the aid that best suits you, and not just whatever free stuff the government decides to gives away, because quitting isn’t cheap and it isn’t easy."