Gov. Kathy Hochul’s budget proposal would increase the cigarette tax...

Gov. Kathy Hochul’s budget proposal would increase the cigarette tax and prohibit the sale of flavored tobacco common in vaping e-cigarettes. Above, an e-cigarette user in 2019. Credit: AP/Craig Mitchelldyer

ALBANY — Gov. Kathy Hochul’s budget proposal to increase the cigarette tax to the nation's highest and prohibit the sale of flavored tobacco common in vaping is in the middle of a fierce lobbying fight.

Hochul says the measure, which would create the nation’s highest tobacco tax, will save lives and “lead the way for a tobacco-free generation.”

The proposal would increase the tax by $1 to $5.35 per pack. The statewide average cost of a pack of cigarettes is $11.96, but is as high as $15 in New York City, which has its own taxes. The national average is $8.

But the proposal faces stiff lobbying now from the industry and some law enforcement groups that predict the proposal will lead only to more illegal sales. Some Black leaders fear a ban on menthol flavoring popular in their community would give police a pretext to stop and question Black residents. And a public advocate warns the measure doesn’t go far enough.

“This is a public health matter,” Hochul said last week. “It's been recommended by public health authorities. And we're having a lot of conversations, but there are very strong voices on the other side as well that says communities, all communities, need to have the best start in life and make sure that our young people don't get addicted to cigarettes.”

She said tobacco flavored by menthol, chocolate, grape and “banana smash” and other flavors is “more of an attraction to young people to start out on the path of a lifetime of smoking addiction.”

Her tax would provide funding for anti-smoking campaigns and for smoking cessation programs.

But Hochul’s proposal isn’t a simple “sin tax” that could easily elicit support. The proposal took opponents and even supporters by surprise in January and has drawn multipronged opposition. A TV ad campaign calls the idea a new Prohibition, referring to the failed 18th Amendment passed in 1919 that banned alcohol sales.

“The increased tax and the flavor ban will do nothing but create social havoc,” said Kent Sopris, president of the New York Association of Convenience Stores. “Prohibition doesn’t work and trying to force folks to buy things in a certain way just doesn’t work.”

The New York State Sheriffs’ Association said that more than half of cigarettes smoked in the state already are bootlegged, costing the state $1 billion in tax revenue. In addition, enforcing the law will further fracture relations between police and communities.

“Scrutinizing citizens and business establishments for what many will likely consider a garden-variety vice could exhaust what remaining goodwill law enforcement has with the people,” said Peter Kehoe, executive director of the sheriffs group.

A group of Black ministers in Western New York agreed. In a news conference, they called for Hochul and the State Legislature to exclude the ban on menthol flavoring, which is a big part of the flavored tobacco trade and popular with Black smokers.

A key concern is whether it would disproportionately impact the Black community. "If you are asking if I'm worried about smokers lighting up and being stopped by police, then yes, I am," said the Rev. Frank Bostic of the Pilgrim Ministry Baptist Church of Buffalo.

Assembly Majority Leader Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes (D-Buffalo) told WGRZ-TV in Buffalo that she will seek to remove the menthol ban from the bill as the Assembly and Senate prepare their budget proposals, which will be used in negotiations with Hochul. That could open the issue to changes in negotiations, although governors have leverage over legislative leaders in crafting a budget under the state constitution.

Hochul said the menthol ban wouldn’t result in police targeting Black smokers. "We have many clergy from Black and Brown communities who stepped up for us,” she said. “They agree that this is a public health matter.”

NAACP leader Hazel Dukes and several state legislators support Hochul’s proposal.

Senate Health Committee Chairman Gustavo Rivera (D-Bronx) said he is committed to passing the proposal to protect New Yorkers “from the unquestionable dangers of tobacco use and smoking."

To still others, Hochul’s measure, while headed in the right direction, falls short.

If the tax and flavor ban are enforced, “these steps could be the most significant efforts in years to curb tobacco use, its addiction and illnesses,” according to a February analysis by the New York Public Interest Research Group.

“Yet, the governor’s plan does not strengthen the state’s program that both helps existing smokers to quit (and thus pay the tax hike, but have no help in quitting) and keeps kids from starting,” NYPIRG’s report stated. “In addition, the plan does not include additional measures to strengthen enforcement of the laws regarding illegal tobacco use and sales.”

More funding for enforcement, anti-smoking education, and cessation programs are needed rather than continuing the state’s history of taking part of the increased “sin tax” for the general fund, the report said. NYPIRG also said the measure lacks an increase in the cost of cigars, “little cigars” and e-cigarettes to dissuade smokers from simply switching to a cheaper means.

Still, many health advocates strongly support Hochul’s proposal.

“A $1-per-pack increase in the cigarette tax has the potential to save over 15,000 lives,” said Michael Davoli, senior government relations director of the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network in New York. “Despite what opponents say, evidence clearly shows raising tobacco prices through regular and significant tax rate increases encourages people who use tobacco to quit or cut down their usage and helps prevent kids from ever starting to use tobacco."

“Each time that New York State has adopted strong policy reforms smoking rates have gone down,” Davoli told Newsday. "That is undeniable."

ALBANY — Gov. Kathy Hochul’s budget proposal to increase the cigarette tax to the nation's highest and prohibit the sale of flavored tobacco common in vaping is in the middle of a fierce lobbying fight.

Hochul says the measure, which would create the nation’s highest tobacco tax, will save lives and “lead the way for a tobacco-free generation.”

The proposal would increase the tax by $1 to $5.35 per pack. The statewide average cost of a pack of cigarettes is $11.96, but is as high as $15 in New York City, which has its own taxes. The national average is $8.

But the proposal faces stiff lobbying now from the industry and some law enforcement groups that predict the proposal will lead only to more illegal sales. Some Black leaders fear a ban on menthol flavoring popular in their community would give police a pretext to stop and question Black residents. And a public advocate warns the measure doesn’t go far enough.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Gov. Hochul is proposing to increase the state cigarette tax to the highest level in the nation and ban the sale of flavored tobacco common in vaping.
  • The proposal would increase the tax by $1 to $5.35 per pack. The statewide average cost of a pack of cigarettes is $11.96.
  • But critics liken the ideas to Prohibition and say they will lead to more illegal sales and disproportionately affect  the Black community.

“This is a public health matter,” Hochul said last week. “It's been recommended by public health authorities. And we're having a lot of conversations, but there are very strong voices on the other side as well that says communities, all communities, need to have the best start in life and make sure that our young people don't get addicted to cigarettes.”

She said tobacco flavored by menthol, chocolate, grape and “banana smash” and other flavors is “more of an attraction to young people to start out on the path of a lifetime of smoking addiction.”

Her tax would provide funding for anti-smoking campaigns and for smoking cessation programs.

But Hochul’s proposal isn’t a simple “sin tax” that could easily elicit support. The proposal took opponents and even supporters by surprise in January and has drawn multipronged opposition. A TV ad campaign calls the idea a new Prohibition, referring to the failed 18th Amendment passed in 1919 that banned alcohol sales.

“The increased tax and the flavor ban will do nothing but create social havoc,” said Kent Sopris, president of the New York Association of Convenience Stores. “Prohibition doesn’t work and trying to force folks to buy things in a certain way just doesn’t work.”

The New York State Sheriffs’ Association said that more than half of cigarettes smoked in the state already are bootlegged, costing the state $1 billion in tax revenue. In addition, enforcing the law will further fracture relations between police and communities.

“Scrutinizing citizens and business establishments for what many will likely consider a garden-variety vice could exhaust what remaining goodwill law enforcement has with the people,” said Peter Kehoe, executive director of the sheriffs group.

A group of Black ministers in Western New York agreed. In a news conference, they called for Hochul and the State Legislature to exclude the ban on menthol flavoring, which is a big part of the flavored tobacco trade and popular with Black smokers.

A key concern is whether it would disproportionately impact the Black community. "If you are asking if I'm worried about smokers lighting up and being stopped by police, then yes, I am," said the Rev. Frank Bostic of the Pilgrim Ministry Baptist Church of Buffalo.

Assembly Majority Leader Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes (D-Buffalo) told WGRZ-TV in Buffalo that she will seek to remove the menthol ban from the bill as the Assembly and Senate prepare their budget proposals, which will be used in negotiations with Hochul. That could open the issue to changes in negotiations, although governors have leverage over legislative leaders in crafting a budget under the state constitution.

Hochul said the menthol ban wouldn’t result in police targeting Black smokers. "We have many clergy from Black and Brown communities who stepped up for us,” she said. “They agree that this is a public health matter.”

NAACP leader Hazel Dukes and several state legislators support Hochul’s proposal.

Senate Health Committee Chairman Gustavo Rivera (D-Bronx) said he is committed to passing the proposal to protect New Yorkers “from the unquestionable dangers of tobacco use and smoking."

To still others, Hochul’s measure, while headed in the right direction, falls short.

If the tax and flavor ban are enforced, “these steps could be the most significant efforts in years to curb tobacco use, its addiction and illnesses,” according to a February analysis by the New York Public Interest Research Group.

“Yet, the governor’s plan does not strengthen the state’s program that both helps existing smokers to quit (and thus pay the tax hike, but have no help in quitting) and keeps kids from starting,” NYPIRG’s report stated. “In addition, the plan does not include additional measures to strengthen enforcement of the laws regarding illegal tobacco use and sales.”

More funding for enforcement, anti-smoking education, and cessation programs are needed rather than continuing the state’s history of taking part of the increased “sin tax” for the general fund, the report said. NYPIRG also said the measure lacks an increase in the cost of cigars, “little cigars” and e-cigarettes to dissuade smokers from simply switching to a cheaper means.

Still, many health advocates strongly support Hochul’s proposal.

“A $1-per-pack increase in the cigarette tax has the potential to save over 15,000 lives,” said Michael Davoli, senior government relations director of the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network in New York. “Despite what opponents say, evidence clearly shows raising tobacco prices through regular and significant tax rate increases encourages people who use tobacco to quit or cut down their usage and helps prevent kids from ever starting to use tobacco."

“Each time that New York State has adopted strong policy reforms smoking rates have gone down,” Davoli told Newsday. "That is undeniable."

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