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State plan to boost cigarette tax seen as 'easy target' by smokers

Smokers are fuming over a plan by state lawmakers to increase cigarette taxes to the highest in the nation in the latest effort to balance the state budget. 

"It's just cowardice on the part of politicians," said Jeremiah Bowen, a Buffalo resident and a smoker. 

Bowen, a University at Buffalo graduate student, believes state lawmakers are going after an "easy target" by taxing cigarettes to make "quick cash."

Several smokers and non-smokers interviewed this afternoon expressed disdain for the state Legislature's decision Monday to increase the state's excise tax on cigarettes on July 1 by $1.60 per pack, to $4.35, in an attempt to raise more money for state expenses. 

"Instead of raising the taxes, why not just ban them?" asked Woody Brown, a Buffalo resident and college student who was smoking a cigarette outside Spot Coffee on Elmwood Avenue this afternoon. "In reality, all you're actually doing is making money off of the backs of people who can't quit."

Some said they support the move.

"It's a good idea," said Nicole McNerney, a West Seneca resident who does not smoke. "Smoking's bad to begin with."

McNerney, who said she is studying business administration at Fredonia State College, said she would also support a tax on sugar-laden sodas and other measures aimed at improving health. 

But, her friend, Paige Austin, added, "I don't think it's going to stop people from smoking." 

In addition to raising the cigarette tax, the state Legislature also voted Monday to permit the state to start collecting taxes on Indian cigarette sales on Sept. 1. 

The financially-motivated decision by state lawmakers to boost the cigarette tax again was met with displeasure and support from different advocacy groups on Monday. 

The head of a trade group representing convenience stores told The Buffalo News on Monday that the tax will end up giving more reasons for smokers to avoid retailers who must charge the tax. But Julianne Hart, director of advocacy for the American Heart Association in New York, told The News the tax will reduce adult smoking levels and keep teenagers from taking up smoking.

Several people interviewed this afternoon, however, saw the cigarette tax increase as little more than a way to boost state revenues -- in the name of public health.

Marty Galindo, a Buffalo resident and a "sometimes" smoker, suggested that the state should used the revenue it collects through cigarettes to pay for better programs to help smokers quit.

"It just seems that it's tax after tax after tax," Galindo said. "You get all these tax breaks, but they're not for people on a lower level."

Holly Melgard, a Buffalo resident who counted herself among the smokers, called the state's plan "back-door prohibitionism."

"I think it's an opportunity to capitalize on fear and public safety as opposed to rearranging public financial infrastructure," Melgard said. "The state budget doesn't have anything to do with smoking any more than getting my shirt cleaned at the dry cleaners does."

Tom Cassata, a Buffalo resident, said he has been smoking for years and has watched the taxes increase steadily during that time. He's even recently bought an electronic cigarette that provides doses of nicotine to help him quit.

But he doesn't think increasing the taxes or going after Indian cigarette sales are fair ways to entice smokers to quit. 

"It's terrible," Cassata said. "Cigarettes are too expensive as it is, and the Indians deserve a break."

--Denise Jewell Gee

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