New York is raising the tax on cigarettes by $1 a pack — a move that anti-tobacco advocates worry is half a loaf, but convenience store groups believe will only lead to an expansion of an underground market of illicit sales.
The tax increase is part of New York’s $229 billion budget plan. Once approved, it will reach $5.35 – making the state one of the most expensive places in the country to buy cigarettes. State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins says the move is meant to further cut down smoking rates.
"What we really do want to do is, frankly, discourage smoking in general," said Stewart-Cousins.
But lawmakers rejected the second of Gov. Kathy Hochul’s anti-tobacco measures in her initial budget: a push to ban menthol and other flavored tobacco products. Stewart-Cousins says state lawmakers are anticipating a ban on menthol products by the Biden administration later this year.
"They say they will presenting guidance and it looks likely to be a ban in the fall," she said.
Anti-tobacco advocates like Michael Davoli of the American Cancer Society say the development is a mixed result for efforts to curb tobacco usage.
"We applaud the legislature for increasing the cigarette tax and it’s undoubtably going to save lives, and it’s going to drive down smoking rates. But we could have do so much more," Davoli said.
New York has seen a steep decline over the last several decades in tobacco usage. But smoking continues at higher rates among low-income people and people of color. Davoli pointed to the effect of anti-tobacco cessation programs.
The state is set to increase cessation program spending by more than $7 million, using money from a nationwide settlement with e-cigarette maker Juul.
"It isn’t accidental smoking rates have gone down," Davoli said. "But it’s important to remember it hasn’t gone down for everyone."
Davoli expects there to be a continued push to ban menthol at the state level as well as fund tobacco cessation programs in the budget.
"We have to keep our foot on the gas that we’re ensuring we’re funding tobacco control programs, that clean air laws don’t get weakened, that new products like Juul and e-cigarettes don’t come on to the market," he said.
Conveince store organizations, meanwhile, decried the tax increase in the budget, arguing it would just further expand the illicit marketplace.
"An increase in taxes will only increase the percentage of illegal product being sold underground - the state already has a 53% illegal cigarette market share. As that percentage goes up the state will have the same situation as currently exists with cannabis,' said Kent Sopris, the president of the New York Association of Convenience Stores.
The group, which also opposed the menthol ban, called for more enforcement of illegal tobacco sales in the state.
"The costs to retailers remain uncertain but both the governor and Legislature have determined the cost of the tax to the state will be $25 million in lost revenue," he said.