ADDISON COUNTY — When John St. Germain, 21, of Shoreham made his daily trip to Maplefields to pick up a pack of cigarettes on July 1, he looked past the cashier, realized the price of cigarettes had skyrocketed overnight, pushed his wallet back into his pocket and walked out the door empty-handed, swearing never to buy another pack again.
What happened was the state’s 38-cent cigarette tax increase went into effect, raising the total tax per pack from $2.24-$2.62.
“I walked into a store and a pack that’s usually five and change was $6.99,” said St. Germain last Friday about a pack of cigarettes that he said was the cheapest in the store. “Now they’re easily double the price of when I started smoking and that’s why I refused to buy cigarettes this morning.
“I just simply saw the price and turned around and walked out … This is going to irritate me to the point that I’m going to quit smoking cigarettes.”
So, too, was the case for Tyler Ballard, 24, of Middlebury, who’s accustomed to smoking one to two packs a week.
“Since the tax went up, I haven’t bought a pack of cigarettes,” he said. “They’re just too expensive. As a smoker it stinks, but it’s going to be good for people quitting.”
Vice Chairman of the House Healthcare Committee Rep. Mike Fisher, D-Lincoln, explained that reducing the number of young smokers in Vermont is directly linked to reducing the overall cost of healthcare. One aim of the heftier tax, he said, is not only to sway people away from smoking, but to prevent teenagers from starting.
“The real essence (of this tax hike) is that it reduces the number of people that start smoking. We’re not just talking about cessation here, we’re talking about preventing people from starting in the first place.”
But there’s another government motive at work: generating revenue. Member of the House Weighs and Means Committee Rep. David Sharpe explained that the Vermont Legislative Joint Fiscal Office projects that the new tax will raise an extra $4.6 million in revenues. These funds, Sharpe said, will go to funding the state’s Medicaid program.
The problem of trying to generate state revenue on the one hand, however, and the goal of smoker prevention and cessation on the other creates an inherent conflict.
“There’s a counter conversation about raising the money,” said Fisher. “If we’re successful on the first (front of smoker prevention and cessation) then it interferes with our success on the second (front of generating revenue). My main motivation is around changing behaviors.”
BUYING OUT OF STATE
There’s always an option for individuals like St. Germain and Ballard to buy cigarettes out of state instead of quitting. But the question is: Is it worth the drive and the price of gasoline, not to mention the inconvenience and time spent.
As Vermont’s cigarette tax jumped up on Friday, New Hampshire’s dropped by a dime, from $1.78-$1.68.
“More people will just get cigarettes out of state,” said owner of Middlebury Discount Beverage Joseph Controneo, who indicated that he’s seen tax hikes before and they only drive business out of state.
Sharpe, on the other hand, isn’t convinced.
“In order to recapture sales that we’ve lost to New Hampshire both in terms of sales tax and the cigarette tax, we’d have to drop our rate substantially.”
Vermont’s new competitor, Sharpe explained, will be Massachusetts, whose traditionally higher cigarette tax now sits 11 cents cheaper than Vermont’s at $2.51.
“I think the real question (in terms of displaced sales) is going to be the Massachusetts border because New York is a lot higher than we are and we have enjoyed a surge in sales to New York residents due to their tobacco increases,” he said.
For individuals like St. Germain and Ballard who are hoping to walk away from cigarettes, several programs are available to help.
The state-sponsored Vermont Quit Network — accessible via Internet at www.vtquitnetwork.org or by phone at 1-800-quit-now — provides a free program that includes: over the phone coaching sessions; a wide range of online support, tips and methods to quit smoking; and an eight-week dose of nicotine gum, patches or lozenges on the state’s dime.
Pharmacist of 30 years Margaret Moore of Marble Works Pharmacy in Middlebury told the Independent that many insurance companies and even Medicaid will generally cover the costs of products to help smokers quit for up to three months. And today’s smoker cessation products, she said, are more varied than ever, with electronic cigarettes that vaporize liquid nicotine, patches, gum, inhalants and lozenges to help people wean themselves off smoking.
But regional smoker cessation programs in Addison County are lacking. In March, the county’s mainstay program at Porter Hospital shut down due to fiscal belt tightening.
“The smoking cessation program was within the department of community health outreach … so it was one of the programs that was impacted by the elimination of the department,” said Ron Hallman. “It also was a program that was funded through the Vermont Department of Health, and the funding for that particular program had been diminishing over time to the point where it had been reduced so dramatically that it was not really covering the costs of the program.”
So as the tax on cigarettes has been raised and more smokers might look to quit, the county’s in-person smoker cessation infrastructure is almost non-existent.
“There is no doubt that we have not invested enough of our resources in helping people change addictive patterns,” said Fisher. “There are people in our community who need a strong partner in making these life changes.”
Despite cutting the Porter program, Hallman did indicate that primary care physicians are a great source of support and guidance when it comes to quitting smoking.
St. Germain and Ballard also agree that while programs like Porter’s previous offering might help some smokers, quitting is ultimately a test of one’s own will.
“If it’s something you really want to do, there are quit lines and patches and gum and different things work for different people. But if it’s something you really want to do, there are means out there to help you,” said Ballard.
“I think it’s more that you’ve got to do it yourself and you’ve got to want to do it yourself,” said St. Germain. “When you see somebody smoking a cigarette, you could go up and ask them for one or you could tell yourself, ‘No.’
“It’s a matter of will power at that point.”
Reporter Andrew Stein is at [email protected]