Friday, October 1st, 2010

Keep Your Hands Off My 67-Cent Cigarettes

:(It is an ever more wretched time to be a smoker in New York City. Mayor Scrooge McDuck sends undercover investigators to reservations and plots banning cigarette-smoking in public spaces, having nothing better to do or any jobs to create. Now cigarettes can cost as much as $13.50 a pack, putting each cigarette at roughly 67 of your hard-earned cents-rapidly approaching McDonald's dollar menu territory.

Smokers are usually not allowed to complain, what with the litany of dangers we are inflicting on ourselves and others that must be appended. I have heard about your asthma and the terrible asthma of your children, and your relief in not needing to clean your clothing after a night out at the bar. And, yes, it's hard to see increased quit rates as a bad thing, coerced as they may be. But we've reached an unbalanced position with both the commodity of smoking and-yes, Kathleen Parker!-government regulation.

In many states and cities smokers are already forced from the shelter of buildings, but we're alone in sky-high pricing, a New York classic. The cultural impact is that cigarettes have gained a new value and smokers are working out complicated new etiquette due to their increased valuation.

By driving the cost to laughable heights-one bodega owner told me the price would top $15, and its all tax, as the stores only make between .23 and .75 cents a pack-the Mayor isn't doing anyone attached to the city's economy any favors. Dedicated smokers will still get their fix, and be pushed to find other sources. They already are, and New York City business lose out.

Suddenly the cigarettes are gone, and you're forking $12 back over to Bloomberg and Albany, a neat trick. But soon you learn to take your money elsewhere and, at least, have your friend bring a bunch up from Virginia. And New York loses another smoker-not to the righteous joys of quitting, but to supplement a gas station in a less ridiculous state.

New York state's audacity, going so far as to threaten Native American tax-free cigarette exemptions, led the Shinnecock tribe's representative to call the tax hike "just another extension of… the genocidal tactics of New York state." It's a move that could potentially destroy local tribal economies and led to protests when similar measures were proposed in 1997.

The price-hikes have also created an environment surrounding cigarettes that is equal parts desperate, humbling and revealing. Smoking is passing poor people by-and giving them an opportunity to become smoking criminals-and an underground market thrives in the rationality void.

Because of the jacked-up price, the etiquette around bumming has especially shifted. What was once an easily shareable resource has become precious, rare, expensive. You took the time to go and buy your favorite brand for as much money as you would spend for a whole big lunch, and then people-strangers-come up and want to take them from you.

In present-day New York you'll encounter several primary sources of cigarette drain. By nature smokers interact more-that's rather the point-and it was never a big deal when a friend wanted one or a random person on the street stopped you. All part of the nicotine brotherhood.

As a fervent believer in cigarette karma, I never thought I would reach the point where I was resentful of the request for a smoke. Now, it's different.

First there are the people that you know: the friend who never smokes but actually always does, the friend at work who does the same, the friend who only smokes at night so hasn't bought cigarettes quite yet, the friend who only smokes when they're drinking, which is often, or at least, they are only drinking when they see other people. Then there are the jonesing colleagues, to whom you owe fealty. You will freely and willingly offer cigarettes to these people, and be karmically rewarded.

The increasing pool of random strangers requesting a cigarette has become trickier to negotiate. The carton you brought back from that place didn't last like it was supposed to. You'll begin to suspiciously eye those eying you smoking on the street. Do they just have asthma or children or are they smokers?

It's now popular to begin the approach with an offer of money, either visible or proposed, to smooth the way. You'll see them coming with a clutched dollar (or fishing in their pockets for a pretend dollar) and a craving hope in their eyes. Some of these people are sincere, and should be aided. Whether you accept money is a personal choice; many are hoping that you'll turn them down anyway and the pitch will be enough. You can see this in their eyes, too.

You'll be approached by inquisitive homeless people, who deserve a goddamned cigarette. You'll meet lazy rich people whose bags cost more than you make in a month and are an open call, depending on your mood and need to feel magnanimous. You'll talk to nice, genuine members of the black-lung brotherhood. You'll make new friends forever and drunken enemies who curse you on the street if you deny them.

Smokers know we're doing a bad thing, which is one reason why it's so very good. But despite the things we have done, we're not responsible for New York's multi-billion dollar deficit. We're one with you people who love french fries and a nice beverage and not getting hassled for taking photos in public places. Which is to say: when you're fined for ripping open a salt packet in Bryant Park, don't come crying to us.

Smoking as a habit could (and should) be on the wane, but those of us in the transition time must endure its slow, government-enforced demise and shifts in significance and cost. We're already adjusting to a city where the act and art of negotiating for a smoke has become grandiose, a meaningful gesture. Now that's, give or take, 67 cents you're burning. The other day at a stoop sale I bought a $1 shirt for two cigarettes, at a loss. The anti-smoking crusade has for now just ensured I relish every last filthily expensive puff.

But it's also making me into a selfish, cynical cigarette-hoarding bastard. One who will be able to buy sexual favors with a $50 pack in the not-so-distant dystopic future, in some dark flooded alleyway shared with newly emboldened subway rats. These will be the only places left for the carcinogenic outcast, and our memories.

Kaila Hale-Stern is currently a smoker. Her primary concerns are the duplicities of history, the scourge of pop culture and not letting Mayor Bloomberg win the battle against cigarettes. She can be read here and reached here.

Photo by Mendhak from Flickr.

30 Comments / Post A Comment

metoometoo (#230)

Is weed in California cheaper than cigarettes in New York yet? I can't figure out how much weed would equal one pack of cigarettes.

putch (#7,674)

Thanks. I was recently thinking about how it would be cool to start smoking again. But then I'd associated with this kind of incessant whining.

kaila (#634)

Not sure smokers have been putting out the "incessant whining" vibe. More the "oh, fuck, man" vibe, for sure. The "shit, fuck, screwed" vibe. But this documents what it's like to be an open smoker on the streets of New York in 2010. If we whine, it's for a reason, at least.

Glad you're thinking about the related issues of smoking re: your personal cool.

DMcK (#5,027)

I went the DIY route quite some time ago and got one of those slidey cigarette injector thingies. Two cartons of 100 filter tubes each and a bag of loose tobacco (I currently favor Gambler Light Tube Cut) sets me back $30, which by my extremely rough estimate works out to about $3 a pack or so. Minus all the nasty chemicals they put into the standard brands! Don't Tread On Me, cold dead hands, etc. etc.

bmichael (#213)

@putch, since you found the Submit Comment window, it looks like you found the end of the whining. "Incessant" or "low-hanging enough for me to bitch about?"

I blame my recent spate of poverty not on smoking but on my corner bodega not carrying decent rolling tobacco. $12 American Spirits are perhaps the most American cigarette of all? (Ie, overpriced, experialist, also THE BEST.)

kaila (#634)

Noticeably, cigarette-vending places — bodegas, some small supermarkets, Duane Reade — have provided ever more options to fill the void: rollies, attendant products, cigars, "smokeless tobacco" like Camel and Marlboro snus. The message seems to be that we may partake, if we change our habits to do so.

But agreed about the lack of good widespread rolling tobacco. This provides the option of slowing smokers down to a more affordable level and also benefiting from their addiction. Surprised we're not on top of it.

Abe Sauer (#148)

Hey, I love me some libertarianism, but, actually, smokers are in part responsible for the deficit. While the numbers in studies all vary (this one gives NY $1.30 back for every $1 spent) the money state;s pay into Medicaid go to treat smoking related illness in those with no health insurance (A LOT of smokers). (And yes, there are all kind of other nihilistic econ surveys that suggest letting people die earlier is an economic benefit, but is that really how we want to break down everything in society?)

Anyone who thinks Bloomberg does anything because it's a social good is misled. He wouldn't do a thing unless it made economic sense. That's exact reason everyone hates him when it comes to all the other ways NY is becoming just another mall.

Louis Fyne (#2,066)

Seems contradictory ESPECIALLY because we are all talking low income people, either Mikey B is a social utilitarian or a rationalist, tough to argue both at once.

i don't even think this makes intuitive sense, which would you prefer as a cold-blooded rationalist state provider 5 years of emphysema and oxygen tank or 35 years of rambling retire senescence?

Abe Sauer (#148)

Well, for starters medicaid is funded largely at the state level and medicare (for all those years of "rambling" at the end) at the federal level. So all those smokers who fall ill before qualifying for medicare get paid for by NY.

Scum (#1,847)

Nah. The chances that NY pays out more for the treatment of smoking related illness than its recieves in tax revenue from cigarette sales is almost nil. Consider the smokers who are insured, smokers who die from other shit, the ages that smoking related illnesses typically develop ect.

C_Webb (#855)

Makes me wonder how young kids today start smoking, because I never would have gotten the habit if I hadn't stolen entire packs from my parents' carton (they both smoked Vantage). Can only rich kids afford to smoke these days, or do they get after-school jobs to finance the whole enterprise? (I guess maybe they just don't smoke, but that seems hard to believe …)

NinetyNine (#98)

Is $.67 really that much? A glass of bourbon is $7.00.

kaila (#634)

It's not a lot until you're hit up innumerable times per day, multiplying that initial figure by several. I don't begrudge the people — it's the price.

doubled277 (#2,783)

Between this and the why we drink post, The Awl is re-affirming its staunch pro-vice positions this Friday afternoon. Getting ready for the weekend, are we?

marvelouspersona (#7,720)

I've developed a karma policy. My office is above an outpatient rehab center in soho and I smoke Newport 100s (the brand of choice for the "there but for the grace of God go I" crowd).

My policy was born out of necessity: first person to ask me for a smoke gets it. That's it. The rest of the tine I give the excuse "my pack is in my office upstairs, sorry duder."

kaila (#634)

Exactly so — the need to develop established karma rules, a line I never thought I'd cross. The day I carried around a dummy pack of empties was when I knew the situation had reached a breaking point.

petejayhawk (#1,249)

I just paid $4.54 for a pack of Camel Lights.

Life in Flyover Country isn't all bad.

iantenna (#5,160)

i believe that's the going rate at the 7-11 down the street from me in oakland, ca, which is decidely not flyover country, despite what many san franciscans may think.

kaila (#634)

But where are you, and can we get there on a dedicated nicotine weekend roadtrip extravaganza?

petejayhawk (#1,249)

I'm in Lawrence, KS, but unfortunately the Bolt Bus does not stop in my fair burg. On the other hand, I will be coming to NYC next month with a bag full of cartons for friends. Get in on it!

WHOA! AwlBawl in your honor?!

Awl Pal (#1,826)

Block out the likely dates on the Awl calendar, will you? Virgin Air has some sweet rates going on.

iantenna (#5,160)

in college we used to buy illicit mailorder cartons of camel lights from, of all places, turkey for something ridiculous like $2.00 a pack, including freight. this was pre-9/11 though so it might be a lot harder to do these days.

I did that a summer or two ago – cartons of Camel Blues from Estonia for something like $15-20 each. The customs form declared it as "a gift" for me. Which in many ways, it was.

Manna from heaven and all that.

Lomaxx (#7,724)

You can still buy Phillip Morris products from China for less than $3 a pack. Just Google them, or switch to the E-cigarette, also made in China.

omitofo (#4,921)

someone brought my roommate and I a pack of cheap chinese ciggies. Even when we were drunk out of our minds, we couldn't finish one of those. It was like smoking twigs from a toxic dump!

Awl Pal (#1,826)

Mmmm drywall.

James Mitchell (#7,735)

Should put up one of these amazing signs:

'Cut It Out, You Fool.'

bonjourmiette (#6,169)

there is nothing that makes me sadder than when the Awl refreshes away my brillaint masterpiece of a comment just as I am about to post it. sigh.

What I find interesting is the bizzare combination of cranking up the tax revenue flow to city and state via cigarettes and then simultaneously making it a colassal pain in the keister to actually smoke. (Yes I'm sure that a percentage of those taxes collected go into Medicaid funds, but I believe it's probably not all that high of a total percentage of "sin" taxes collected)Taxing those "bad for you" habits like smoking and booze is just the simplest way to level your budget flow problems without people trying to get you booted from office. Imagine the budget crisis and sudden across the board tax increases that would have to go through if all of the smokers decided that it just wasn't worth it anymore and quit altogether.

I'm not a smoker (though I admit that I did smoke probably a pack of Djarums every 2 years when feeling nostalgic for film school until people started to care about "the children" and banned them. I still find it curious that the law only cared about the children who smoked a type of flavoured cig not sold by any big tobacco players, but not so much about the children who smoked the methols, but that's another soapbox.)

MercuryPDX (#65)

$13.50 is CRAZY. I remember getting all pissy at Marlboro when they stopped mailing me coupons that knocked a carton down to $52, and switching to Winstons in protest. When those finally hit $58 a carton, I quit.

They're $7.50 a pack here now (Vancouver, WA) and maybe a buck and change cheaper on the reservations.

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