Weekly Feature

2010-09-08 / Editorial

New state cigarette tax appears to be factor in a spike in crime

DAN MEYER Political Columnist
Earlier this summer Gov. David Paterson signed into law a $4.35-per-pack excise tax on cigarettes, making New York the highest taxing state on cigarette purchases.

I understood Paterson’s motivation and desire to try and convince more smokers to quit their filthy habit by increasing the cost of a pack of smokes to the insane price of nearly $10 a pack. For that kind of money, some smokers might have to decide between paying their cable television bill or picking up another carton.

Of course the governor and other legislators in Albany also knew the new tax would help to reduce the budget gap that existed in the state’s $136 billion spending plan.

But what they didn’t forecast was what has happened since the new tax went into effect at the beginning of July. Despite the hopes of law enforcement officials that smokers remain law abiding citizens, we have seen a rather dramatic increase in crimes related to the theft of individual packs and entire cartons of smokes.

A quick scan last week of police reports published by various weekly and daily newspapers throughout the state found a number of stories with headlines featuring phrases related to the theft of cigarettes. In fact, further investigation found dozens and dozens of cigarette-related crimes that began shortly after July 1, which by no coincidence is when the new tax went into effect.

While the sudden rise in these types of crimes isn’t at the point where state, county and local police administrators are highly alarmed, it does draw attention to a totally unintended consequence of pricing cigarettes out of range for the average smoker who lives in New York.

Convenience stores and gas stations, particularly many smaller “mom-and-pop” businesses located downstate, appear to be the main victims of these thefts, with the suspects often working in teams in an effort to distract cashiers so they can leave the premises in relative ease without paying for the merchandise.

There have also been some reports that more and more business owners are taking special requests for unusually large orders of cigarettes from some unscrupulous characters who agree to buy the smokes at a discounted rate so that they can turn around and sell them on the street at a more competitive price.

The good intentions of the governor and our other elected officials in the state capital to raise more revenue to help ease the pain of New York’s budget woes has unfortunately had a negative impact on a number of small business owners who are now dealing with not only a drop in sales but also this increase in thefts. Add that to the ongoing debate about non-Indians purchasing their smokes on tax-free reservations and you can see how many people throughout the Empire State are concerned about cigarettes and the various taxes associated with purchasing them.

Instead of swimming in a sea of cash, our representatives in Albany will actually have to earmark some of the funds from the new excise tax to prosecute criminals who are either caught stealing cigarettes or selling smokes illegally on the black market. More manpower and resources will end up having to be devoted to the budget lines associated with law enforcement agencies and justice courts.

This growing trend of thefts and illegal activity on the streets has to be particularly frustrating to Paterson, who when he signed the law for the new tax promoted the concept of cleaner air and healthier lungs.

Instead we are seeing a dramatic drop in sales — some locally owned and operated convenience store owners were quoted in a recent television news story that their sales have dipped as much as 40 percent — as smokers are doing whatever is humanly possible to find alternative ways to buy their cigarettes.

One of those new ways to purchase smokes at a much cheaper rate is to make the trip to Pennsylvania, where sales numbers have tripled in just a few short months and caused one happy entrepreneur from that state to say in a recent news article that she has openly welcomed new customers during a time when she often observes “no Pennsylvania (license) plates in the parking lot.”

A spike in crime and a drop in sales for small business owners who are barely making ends meet is certainly not what Paterson had in mind at a time when enforcing the tax on Indian reservations is still very much in doubt.

(Opinions are those of the author.)

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