NEW YORK – Tony McHugh has an old habit with a new hefty price.
His 20 cigarettes-a-day fix now will cost $2,500 a year due to a $1.50 tax rise per pack in New York, one of many communities making smoking a high-priced addiction.
"Ay caramba," McHugh said as the cost sunk in.
New Yorkers already pay $5 for a cappuccino and have been known to fork over $12 for a martini. But there was plenty of grumbling from smokers Monday as they began paying more than $7 for a pack of cigarettes.
"Ten years ago I said I would never pay $5 for a pack of cigarettes, but if it's something that you want to do, you'll find a way to do it," Rochelle Frederick, 43, said as she lit up a Merit. The pack cost her $7.50.
The new city tax was a nasty blow to smokers, who were just getting used to a state tax increase of $1.50 per pack that took effect in May. New Yorkers now pay double the national average for cigarettes.
"I might have to actually start investigating other avenues to get my fix," said McHugh, 34, as he puffed a Camel and sipped coffee with a pack of smokers during a morning break. "It's going to hurt a lot but it won't cause me to quit."
The tax is expected to generate an additional $111 million this year for the city, which is trying to close a $5 billion budget gap. With a new fiscal year beginning Monday, the city also instituted new fees for cell phones and parking violations, and eliminated glass and plastic from its recycling program.
Other states have bumped their cigarette taxes this year, including: New Jersey (70 cents per pack), Vermont (49 cents) and Illinois (40 cents). A 69-cents-per-pack increase will begin July 15 in Pennsylvania, more than tripling the 31-cent tax.
New Jersey and New York state both levy $1.50 per pack, the highest cigarette tax in the nation. Washington state is third, at $1.425.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and others say they hope the higher prices will encourage more smokers to quit. But critics said smokers will simply buy inexpensive cigarettes over the Internet, in nearby states or from American Indian reservations, which are not subject to state and local taxes.
Many smokers said they felt unfairly targeted by lawmakers, who they said can get away with taxing cigarettes because the habit is no longer socially acceptable.
Becky Rabinowitz, 59, rolled her eyes and imitated nonsmokers who wrinkle their noses and wave away the smoke from her Misty Menthol Lights as they walk by her office building.
"Why do the smokers have to be penalized?" asked Rabinowitz, who has smoked for more than 40 years. "There are other taxes they could be raising that they aren't."