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Genesee Koopmans, who sells cigarettes at Medford’s Food 4 Less store, cringes at the thought of her customers paying higher taxes for cigarettes and other tobacco products. - Bob Pennell

Going up in smoke

With cigarette taxes rising again, Rogue Valley smokers are fuming as they decide whether to pay more, go cold turkey or scrounge up butts to roll their own.

Federal tobacco taxes will rise from 39 cents a pack to $1.01 per pack on April 1 to raise $32.8 billion for the federal State Children's Health Insurance Program, or SCHIP.

"It's ridiculous, the tax — very frustrating," said Susan Handegard of Medford Wednesday.

"I feel horrible. I'm trying to quit or taper off. I'm on a fixed income. If they keep raising taxes, I won't have them at all and, with cold turkey, I will go insane. A lot of people are going to freak out,"

"It's the last pleasure I have in life," she said.

Come April Fools' Day, a carton of the cheapest cigarettes, Grand Prix, will cost $42.84 at Medford's Food 4 Less store. The most expensive brand, Benson & Hedges, will cost $66.02, said Genesee Koopmans, a clerk at the smoking corner.

Cigarette buyers at Food 4 Less are required to pay on the spot or move immediately to the checkout line. Given their passionate demand and rising costs, Koopmans said "it's frightening to think that someone might attack us."

She said smokers call daily asking for price quotes on cigarettes, but staff is not allowed to give them information over the phone.

Many smokers, like Ed Hale of Medford, have found the very cheapest smokes at gas stations, where generic cigarettes sometimes go for $3.25 per pack, about 55 cents less than market retail.

"It's a horrible addiction, with a lot of suffering but the state is capitalizing on the helplessness of addiction," Hale said. "The stress of having to pay more impacts your health. I've got my eyes and ears peeled for the black market, and I'm sure that's coming, but it just adds more stress of being made an outlaw."

Like most smokers at the Food 4 Less counter, Hale said he hates being addicted.

"It's a rotten, insidious thing," he said. "I started at 13, a big mistake. It's easy to start but I grabbed a tiger by the tail and if you let go, it will tear you to pieces.

"But the government is pricing people out of the legal market and into a life of crime," he said. "It's such a high-stress society. Who wouldn't want a smoke?"

Mark Bishop of Talent, who said he just quit smoking, came in the store to buy a pack of gum.

"When a pack of cigarettes gets to costing the same as a gallon-and-a-half of gas, it's time to quit," he said, "especially when you live in a 30-year old trailer. Prices are crazy. But if I don't smoke, I can pay bills."

Amanda Goetz of Medford shrugged and said, "It's a really bad habit, but I'll deal with it (tax hikes) until I quit. If you smoke, you've got to pay the price."

Linda Sherrill of Rogue River, who was buying a carton of cigarettes for her husband, said he's kept the habit affordable by cutting way down and saving cigarette butts to roll his own smokes.

"We thought when they went from 27 cents a pack to 32 cents, then we'd quit, then we said we'd stop at $4 (a pack), and $5 — and now he's saving butts," said Sherrill. "But if the tax is going to health care, then it's going to the right place."

The roll-your-own crowd gets hit hard in this round of tax increases, as the federal government attempts to make the tax on loose tobacco equal the tax on the amount of tobacco in manufactured cigarettes.

The tax on loose bulk tobacco will increase from $1.10 a pound to $24.78 per pound. Add that to the cost of the tobacco itself, and a pound will cost more than $50, said Debi Nikodym, the store's tobacco department manager.

Nikodym said her customers tend to fall into two categories — those who are resigned to the reality that they'll never quit and will just have to live with more taxes; and those "who are going to try their darnedest to quit but probably won't succeed."

The tax increase, signed by President Obama on Feb. 4, will affect all other forms of tobacco as well, including snuff and chewing tobacco.

Meanwhile, a state tobacco tax boost is being discussed in Salem. Oregon's current tax of $1.18 per pack ranks 22nd among the states. New Jersey's tax of $2.575 per pack is the highest state tax; Missouri's 17 cents per pack is the lowest. The median state tax is $1 per pack. The median is the middle, with as many states above it as below.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

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