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Survey finds more WNY smokers buying Indian-made cigarettes

More smokers in Western New York are buying cigarettes made on Indian reservations because of their significantly lower price than brand name products and easy accessibility, a new report shows.

The survey by Roswell Park Cancer Institute, which has been tracking reservation cigarette sales since 2002, adds more evidence to the anecdotal reports of many experts.

It also raises a public health issue.

The effort by New York to collect cigarette tax revenues on the wholesale level has led smokers to buy lower-cost Indian-made cigarettes and, as a result, may be discouraging smokers to quit.

"Price is about as important as any factor in getting people to stop smoking," said Andrew Hyland, chairman of the cancer center's Department of Health Behavior.

"If there are cheaper alternatives for smokers, they will seek them out, and that is bad for public health," he said.

The Cuomo administration last summer began enforcing a state law banning wholesalers from selling untaxed cigarettes to Indian retailers for sale to non-Indians. The policy focused on brand names, such as Marlboro, that had been sold tax-free on Indian reservations.

The state's excise tax of $4.35 a pack is the highest in the nation.

New York officials have argued that the state has the right to tax Indian-made cigarettes sold to non-Indians, but there has not been an equivalent crackdown.

The New York Association of Convenience Stores, which advocated for the state's policy with brand-name cigarettes, is pushing to have tax collected on Indian-made cigarettes sold to non-Indian New Yorkers.

Among the findings of the survey of 1,555 smokers and 15 cigarette retailers on Indian reservations in Erie and Niagara counties:

Only two retailers in 2011 continued to sell leading brand name cigarettes, including Marlboro, Camel, Newport, Winston and Virginia Slims.

Brand-name cigarette advertising on the reservation has declined.

The average number of advertisements inside reservation cigarette retail stores decreased from 51 in 2008 to 19 in 2011. In addition, ads for special cigarette promotions decreased from 100 percent of outlets in 2006 to 33 percent in 2011.

Between 2002 and 2011, the percentage of all smokers in Erie and Niagara counties using a reservation-manufactured brand increased, and is now comparable to the percentage of smokers using Marlboro and Newport.

From 2006 to 2011, the average price per pack for major brands sold on Indian reservations rose from $3.26 to $6.60, while the average price per pack for such Indian-made brands as Seneca and Lewiston increased from $1.36 to $2.93.

In Erie and Niagara counties, at least two-thirds of the cigarettes that smokers buy come from Indian reservations, Hyland said.

That's a significant shift, he said, noting that Indian-made brands were not popular with consumers a decade ago.

In addition to making it more difficult to get people to stop smoking, he said, the availability of the lower-cost cigarettes may contribute to a loss in tax revenue to the state.

There may not be a loss so far, but there hasn't been a windfall either from the state's tax-collection efforts, according to a review of state records in November by The Buffalo News.

"The data says the state's policy is ineffective," Hyland said. "The Indians have adapted, and their brands now fuel the cigarette market for the most part."

email: hdavis@buffnews.com