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OHIO Possible increase in cigarette tax has some fuming



Published: Wed, May 29, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



The cigarette tax in Pennsylvania is 6 cents higher than Ohio's. That could change if the Ohio Legislature approves the 31-cent proposal.

By TRAVIS REED

VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER

YOUNGSTOWN -Youngstown resident David McIntyre can remember when he started smoking, and all it cost for a pack of Marlboros was 26 cents and a few stealthy footsteps.

The 14-year-old McIntyre would wait until the attendant was busy and sneak into a store on Market Street, where he could sink a quarter and a penny into a tobacco machine, slip out back and steal a few puffs.

The quarter covered the price of the cigarettes, and the penny was for taxes.

Now McIntyre is 48, and that old market was torn down long ago. With it, he says, has gone the reasonable ceiling of cigarette taxes.

"They got us hooked when we were kids," said McIntyre, who said he smokes a pack a day. "And now, every time I turn around, they're trying to jack it up."

Under consideration

As part of a state budget fix, the Ohio Legislature is considering boosting the sales tax on cigarettes by 31 cents, to 55 cents per pack. The smoke tax increase has drawn criticism from legislators who call it a superficial solution, are worried it will hurt small businesses in the state or say it disproportionately harms minorities.

The move has some area smokers huffing mad.

"It's wrong," said Carole Walen, a cashier at Penn-Ohio Medicine Mart in Masury. "We could take the money out of [the congressmen's] paycheck. For what they're getting, some do nothing."

Walen, a smoker for 29 years, has worked at the Medicine Mart for about three of those, dispensing cigarettes and ringing up small groceries and prescriptions.

Will Pa. sales increase?

Because her store is so close to the Pennsylvania border -- in fact, a painted stripe of the official state line splits its tile floor -- and because the cigarette counter is officially on the Pennsylvania side, it could see an increase in cigarette sales from Ohio residents near the border.

Walen said she rarely knows whether customers are from Pennsylvania or Ohio, so it's tough to tell how many people already cross over to buy smokes. Right now, the cigarette tax in Pennsylvania is 6 cents higher than Ohio's.

But if the tax increase becomes law, Walen might be seeing more of Bill Clark, a Hermitage, Pa., resident. Clark has smoked for almost 20 years -- since he was 7. He said he smokes either Winstons or Marlboros, whichever he can find cheaper.

Earlier this week, Clark stopped into the Smokes For Less store just down the street from the Medicine Mart. A sign a few feet in front of the store let Clark know he would pay $2.71 for a pack of Marlboros inside.

A few feet and an easy glance in another direction, the same sign in front of Medicine Mart read $2.76 for the same pack, almost all of the difference in current tax rates.

"I'd definitely start going there instead," Clark said of the Pennsylvania alternative.

Some aren't concerned

For Mike Edwards, a Bessemer, Pa., resident who's smoked for 15 years, buying cigarettes is governed more by convenience and whimsy than economics. Edwards said he smokes less than a pack per day, and just picks up cigarettes whenever he thinks about it. He said it doesn't bother him to pay a little extra.

"It's what we pay taxes for," Edwards said. "If I'll pay taxes on cigarettes and it'll improve something else, that's the way it is."

Edwards is not alone. Some smokers said they know it's a bad habit, and aren't concerned about it taking a little heavier toll on pocketbooks for all it does otherwise.

But that seems a hard sell for those in the five-minute break crowd, who this time of year are regularly ferried for a fix out office doors and onto concrete steps and benches squinting from the sun.

Trying an alternative

On Wednesday, Youngstown resident Martin Jourdan, standing in front of the city hall annex on Front Street, was one of them. Except that day, for the first time ever, Jourdan's lips hugged a plug of chewing tobacco instead of burning paper.

It was his first day of trying to quit cigarettes. He hopes a few days like that will chase away seven years of smoking a pack of Newports per day.

Jourdan doesn't call himself an ex-smoker yet, but said the tax increase is unfair, and news like that makes him glad he's trying to quit.

"It's too much to spend on killing yourself," Jourdan said.




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