Keep Your Hands Off My 67-Cent Cigarettes

by Kaila Hale-Stern


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.