Smokers put in their 62 cents

Cigarettes soon will cost more.

Larry Sickles bought his last two cartons of cigarettes Monday: Camel Menthols for himself and Dorals for his wife.

"Enough's enough," said Sickles, 50, who has been smoking since he was 18.

What finally caused the Gaston couple to stub out their last butt? It wasn't failing health or scare tactics. It was money.

Cigarette companies have increased their prices in recent months by as much as 18 cents a pack. A federal 62-cents-a-pack tax is set to go into effect Wednesday, and a state proposal could increase the tax 50 cents more per pack.

The general rule of thumb is for every 10 percent increase in the price of cigarettes, there's a 3 percent increase in the number of people who will quit smoking and a 6 percent increase in the number of children who won't start smoking, said June Deen, spokeswoman for the American Lung Association in South Carolina.

Roughly one in four South Carolinians smoked, and a little more than half of those attempted to quit, according to a 2007 Kaiser Family Foundation study.

Randy Mauney of West Ashley plans to keep smoking despite the government's higher taxes.

"Whatever they got to do," Mauney said as he bought a carton of Doral Lights at a Savannah Highway convenience store. "There ain't nothing I can do about it. I'm still going to buy them."

Michael Johnson, 57, of Shadowmoss said he has been smoking since he was 20.

"You pay for what you want," he said, adding that he's trying to quit.

Mehul Patel, who works at V-Go service station in West Ashley, said he expects to field a few complaints immediately after the federal tax goes up, but since it's not so large, people probably will get used to the higher prices in a few days.

"This state is still cheaper, so people will still buy them because they need them," Patel said. "They will cut back a little bit, but they will still smoke."

He also said the increased tax rate is "actually good for the customer."

"They won't buy as much, and the money will be used for health care," he said.

Some, like Lillie Cokley of Columbia, will try to stop cold-turkey.

"Tomorrow's my last day," she said Monday. "I'm not lying."

Cokley paid $2.18 for her first pack of Newports in 2003 when she turned 18. A few weeks ago, they were up to a little more than $3 a pack, and Monday she paid $4.29 at a discount cigarette store in West Columbia for what she said will be her last pack.

Cigarette makers have not said why they raised their prices, according to published reports. But some say the reason is to offset a drop in profits once the largest-ever federal tax goes into effect Wednesday.

At least one cigarette maker, Philip Morris, which makes Marlboros, put price increases into effect earlier this month to make up for the federal tax increase and other expenses associated with it, a spokesman said. So the price of Marlboros and other Philip Morris brands will remain the same Wednesday.

At 62 cents a pack, the tax increase will help fund government health insurance programs. Prices could rise an additional 50 cents per pack later this year if the state Legislature votes to raise its lowest-in-the-nation cigarette tax to fund a health care program for low-income workers.

Silvana Yaghi said she has seen sales slow at her discount cigarette store, El Cheapo on Bull Street. Although some customers are stocking up on cartons, others can't afford even a single pack anymore.

She said they are going to places that sell single cigarettes and even trying to buy them from her when she's outside on her smoke break.

She's had a lot of customers who have told her they're quitting, too. "And they come back every day," she said.

Quitting is hard, Deen said.

"Most people quit smoking maybe after the fourth, fifth or sixth time they try," she said.

Deen said South Carolina doesn't have any state funding right now for smoking cessation programs. But she hopes funds will be provided if the Legislature passes the higher state tax.

Quitting doesn't appeal to everyone, though.

Ed Eggleston, 65, has no plans to give up his pack-and-a-half a day habit and is willing to pay an extra $6 per week or $300 per year.

"I'll do what I have to do," said Eggleston, who started smoking when he was 18.

Eggleston keeps up with smoking-related laws proposed in recent years, including banning smoking from most public places. The one that particularly riles him is a proposal by the South Carolina Legislature to fine people who are smoking in a car with a child.

"It's a matter of rights," he said. "We sit on the back of the bus."