Sara Salgado can afford the extra 20 cents the city of Alexandria has added to the cost of buying cigarettes. But with a pack now costing about $4, she said yesterday her smoking days could soon be over if prices hit $5.
The Alexandria City Council voted 6-1 on Saturday to increase the tax to 50 cents a pack. And with nearly 5.5 million packs sold in the city each year, the increase could generate $500,000 in 2003 and $1.1 million the following years, which could help ease the city’s $10 million budget deficit expected in 2004.
Alexandria officials hope most smokers will respond to the increase like Miss Salgado did complain but not leave the city limits to save 20 cents.
“Four dollars is pushing it,” Miss Salgado said between puffs while walking down King Street in the Old Town district.
Greg Bender, visiting Alexandria from Belleville, Ill., where cigarettes cost $5 a pack said: “I’ll quit when cigarettes reach $6 a pack.”
The Virginia Beach City Council will vote tonight on whether to match the cities of Alexandria and Chesapeake at 50 cents, the highest local tax rates in Virginia.
In 1996, Alexandria increased the tax from 20 cents to 25 cents, then added another 5 cents several years later.
The 20 Virginia cities that tax tobacco collected nearly $31 million this year.
Arlington and Fairfax are the only Virginia counties that can levy such a tax, a maximum 5 cents a pack, and both plan to ask the General Assembly to go higher.
Still, Virginia remains the cheapest place in the metropolitan area to buy cigarettes, mainly because the state tax of 2.5 cents a pack is the lowest in the country. The average state charges 61 cents a pack. The federal government places a 39-cent tax on each pack, too.
Alexandria Vice Mayor William C. Cleveland, a Republican and only council member who opposed the measure, said, “The reason why we’re raising the cigarette tax is that we’re in dire straits for an income of funds. There are other things in the budget that we could cut.”
Miss Salgado thinks the City Council could have another idea.
“I think most likely they’re trying to get young people to stop smoking,” she said. “They know we’re all poor.”
Old Town News employee Ted White said the store sells 10 to 20 packs a day and that the tax increase should not stop smokers.
“Generally speaking, they’re addicts,” he said, then adding “Some people were already griping about the previous price.”
Red Hart, a manager at John Crouch Tobacconist in Old Town, also expects no drop in sales, but he thinks city officials should consider other money-making measures, including issuing more liquor licenses.
He said customers are going to pay more and complain more, but they know the city is “groping” for money.
Jim Hunter, who lives in Annandale but works in Alexandria, doubts he and others will stop smoking over a 20-cent tax increase.
He said governments know people have trouble quitting and that they can “get people where they know they can.”
However, he still will not make special stops outside Alexandria to buy cheaper cigarettes.
“I’m kind of a casual smoker,” said Mr. Hunter, who has a cigarette to relax at lunch or one during breaks. “I’m not really like a three-packs-a-day guy.”