Smoker exploitation: Coming soon to a state near you

A little while before my daughter was born, I quit smoking. I had tried for years to give it up, and had managed to go from smoking more than two packs of Marlboro Red 100's a day to sucking down one measly pack of Basic Ultra Lights. However, the pending arrival of my daughter, combined with the fact that my self-imposed smoking exile meant that I couldn't hang out with my wife, convinced me to take that final step. I got my doctor to set me up with Welbutrin, laid in a huge stock of rubber bands and gum, and quit cold turkey. In the ensuing two and a half years, I haven't had a single cigarette, although I've been known to suck nicotine off the fingers of total strangers.

I figure that I've saved myself somewhere around $3,000, and I've never felt better; in fact, the smell of cigarette smoke now makes me a little nauseated. Still, I can't quite buy into the smoking harassment that the media and the government seem so ready to lay out. I remember my years of sucking cancer sticks, and recall that the nasty looks, fake coughs, and snide comments only made me more stubborn in my determination to keep my habit. Besides, it was cheaper for me to continue smoking than it was to quit. Zyban, the pill that finally helped me quit, cost more than my cigarettes; until I had health insurance, it was a deal-breaker.

Over the last few days, I've seen a fresh round of the "let's bash a smoker" laws that unpleasantly remind me of the days I spent chained to the demon weed. For starters, New York is talking about jacking up the taxes on a pack of smokes by $1.50. Currently, New York State charges $1.50 per pack tax and New York City charges the same. The state, however, is pursuing a $1 a pack hike and the city is looking to add another $0.50. This means that smokers in New York City could soon be looking at paying $4.50 per pack in taxes.

The justification for this expenditure is that the state is facing a budget gap of $5 billion and is hoping that jacking up cigarette taxes will cover its needs. In the short term, this will probably work: smokers, emotionally and physically addicted to their drug, will pay whatever price they need to pay. If they're anything like I was, they will cut back on food to cover their smokes, and will willingly go through any amount of trouble to get a fix (I once trudged a mile through a blizzard to pick up a pack of Marlboros).

However, the decision to manipulate addicts in order to generate a quick revenue boost seems a little sleazy. Morally, I feel like it places New York on the same level as heroin pusher who ratchets up the price, counting on his customers' suffering to put a few more bucks in his pocket. Of course, many smokers will probably quit, although that will be a lot easier for people who either have health insurance or can pay for counseling and drugs to help them stop smoking. The poorer addicts will be faced with an unattractive choice: they can either quit cold-turkey, lay out a lot of money to cover medication, or dig a little deeper to pay for their fix.

In other news, the Michigan Department of Corrections has recently decided to ban the use of cigarettes and other tobacco products. This policy, which will debut in February 2009, will make it illegal for convicts to smoke anywhere in a prison. State officials estimate that it will save considerable amounts of money that are currently spent on health care for prisoners.

The flip side, of course, is that approximately 35,000 prisoners will soon discover the joy of going cold turkey. In addition to the delights of drastically shortened tempers, confusion, excitability, and unexplained exhaustion, they will also get to have fun with secondary physical effects, including headaches, insomnia, nausea, diarrhea, sore throats, and other flu-like symptoms. I have no doubt that incidents of fighting will soar through the roof and several prisons will probably go on lockdown. Expenditures on health care will probably skyrocket as prisons have to pay doctors to stitch up injured prisoners and guards. There will probably also be additional costs as the state has to tack on extended sentences for inmates who will be caught brawling with each other. Of course, the food bill will also become ridiculous, as many prisoners will eat away their depression and chug a lot of coffee.

Incidentally, even Michigan's guards are dubious. Mel Grieshaber, executive director of the Michigan Corrections Organization, claims that the plan is excessive and notes that state employees are generally permitted to smoke outside their buildings. Of course, his union members are the ones who will have to keep the peace in the nicotine-deprived prisons, so he's understandably nervous.

Apart from the fact that they are related to smoking, the New York and Michigan plan have another thing in common: they both seem to assume that smokers can simply choose to quit at a moment's notice. The truth, however, is that quitting smoking is an incredibly hard process. In my case, it took a few tries, a prescription drug, and the birth of my daughter to help me kick the habit. I know quite a few people who have repeatedly tried and failed. If Michigan and New York are going to push non-smoking, it would be a kind and merciful gesture if they invested in programs to help smokers get over the hump. Of course, that would cost money, and the whole point of these programs is to make money, even if it must be done at the expense of millions of smokers.

Bruce Watson is a freelance writer, blogger, and all-around cheapskate. While he's glad that he quit smoking, he's particularly happy about the fact that it was his choice.

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