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About Utah: Tobacco tax to hit those who can least afford it

Now that it appears we're going to get the money needed so those 29 Utah Highway Patrol troopers won't have to be laid off, and those 213 prison inmates won't have to be released early, and that juvenile court judge in St. George can be hired, and the drivers' license bureaus can open on Fridays, and any number of the state's health and social services can be funded, I thought it only appropriate to thank the people who will be paying for it.

And let me tell you, they're not exactly saying, "You're welcome."

I'm at Tobacco Max, a smoke shop on State Street. If it involves tobacco, this is the place. The store is wall-to-wall stuff you can smoke. Wallpaper by Marlboro.

By midmorning Friday, the news that the state Legislature just voted for a dollar-a-pack cigarette tax increase — the basis for the projected $44 million that will pay for all of the above — has filtered into the shop.

Scott Gunn is working his usual shift at the counter. He provides a description of the kind of people he sells cigarettes to every day — the people who will be paying that extra dollar per pack tax.

"A lot of them can hardly afford to live to begin with," he says. "They pay with dimes and quarters. I've had half a dozen this morning digging for change, pulling lint out of their pocket. And it's the first of the month. You should see it toward the end."

And this is before the increase.

"To tax the little guy," he says, shrugging, "seems kinda hard."

Scott allows that it might be incentive for people to quit. Everything has its price. He uses himself as an example. When he started smoking, at age 13, cigarettes were 75 cents a pack. Every time the price went up he'd think about stopping. "When they reached $2, I'd say, 'I'm quitting,' " he says. "Then it was $3. Now I'm paying $4.15 a pack, and I still haven't quit. It's addictive. It's hard."

We did some quick math. At a pack of Marlboros a day, Scott is spending $135 a month on tobacco (counting sales tax). With the new proposed tax, it will be $165.

Scott is 40. He's been smoking for 27 years. "Maybe this will be what gets me to finally quit," he says.

Just then, Paul Steck comes in for a carton of Pyramids.

Pyramids are the cheapest cigarettes in the store at $2.75 a pack.

"I used to smoke Parliaments," Paul says — the Parliaments are on the shelf next to the Pyramids; they're $4.79 a pack — "but I smoke what I can afford."

Hearing Scott talk about "maybe quitting," Paul, a truck driver during his working days, volunteers the not especially inspirational information that he has tried to quit 30 times.

"I know smoking's not healthy," he says. "But every time I stop smoking, I gain weight — so I have to decide, am I going to die from obesity or from smoking?"

Smokers, he says, are a "scapegoat" for taxation.

"Nine percent of taxpayers smoke. Out of that 9 percent, they're trying to take care of the majority. It isn't fair. But what can you do?"

Next to come in the shop is Sy Pham, the owner of Tobacco Max and a tobacco wholesaler who distributes to more than 100 gas stations and convenience stores in the Salt Lake Valley.

Sy says he is still reeling from the 62-cents-per-pack federal tobacco tax increase that was implemented a year ago — an increase, he claims, that cut his profits by 20 percent.

Tobacco taxes not only target a minority of the public, he says, but they target the poor over the rich.

For evidence, he explains that he consistently delivers 65 percent of his tobacco to the west side of the freeway that dissects the valley, with just 35 percent going to the more affluent east side.

"That tells you who will mostly be paying this tax," he says.

Unless, miracle of miracles, they all quit, which will put us back to square one.

In the meantime, the least we can do, as they dig that lint out of their pockets, is thank them for their generosity.

Lee Benson's column runs Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Please send e-mail to benson@desnews.com.