Taxing tobacco sparks debate

Obama’s plan will benefit children but not smokers

By ADAM KREGER

STAFF WRITER

Some like it. Others don’t. And the split falls along predictable lines.

Educators support President Barack Obama’s plan to help fund preschool education and early childhood programs by raising taxes on tobacco products. But local business owners and smokers, well, they simply hate it.

“I’m all for it,” said Charlotte County Public Schools Superintendent Doug Whittaker. “It does two things: It funds preschools, which desperately need it. And more expensive tobacco products make it harder for teenagers to pick up the habit.”

But area business owners who sell tobacco products and local smokers believe the plan needs to be snuffed out.

Charles White, owner of the newly opened Punta Gorda Cigar Shop, said tobacco as a whole has gotten a bad name because of cigarettes. As a result, he believes cigar companies suffer because of it.

“You can’t just say ‘tobacco’ in general,” White said. “Do I think we should have something in place to help our kids? Yes, but it needs to be sensible.”

Obama has proposed two preschool program options: One would cost $750 million and the other $2 billion. With either plan, an increase in federal taxes on tobacco products would be used to pay for it.

Michelle White, Charles White’s wife and business partner, said Obama’s proposed tax on tobacco would further hurt small businesses like theirs. She also thinks it’s unfair to smokers.

“It’s punishing lower- and middle-class people for something they enjoy,” she said.

Over in Englewood, Bonnie Canchola, a smoker, fumed over the proposal.

‘Like a Gestapo-run state’

She said that people will buy cigarettes no matter what, but that “you’re lucky to smoke anywhere outside of your own home. It’s almost like a Gestapo-run state.”

Each of the 10 Charlotte County public elementary schools has a pre-K program that could benefit. And the Baker Center in Punta Gorda could also be a grateful recipient of the funding because the center consists of two Early Childhood Programs and four pre-K classrooms.

“We have a number of children that can’t get into day care, whether it’s because their parents can’t afford it or that there isn’t enough seats,” said Whittaker. “By expanding (programs) and ensuring quality, it can only be positive.”

Sarasota has pre-K programs only for ESE students (with mental and/ or physical disabilities) at certain district schools: Brentwood, Emma E. Booker, Fruitville, Gulf Gate and Wilkinson in Sarasota; Cranberry, Glenallen, Lamarque and Toledo Blade in North Port, according to Scott Ferguson, spokesman for the Sarasota County School District.

With Obama’s proposal, the federal tax on cigarettes would increase by 94 cents, jumping to $1.95 per pack. This, along with Florida’s current excise tax of $1.339 per pack, would cause a single pack of Marlboro cigarettes at a local gas station to go for around $7.13 per pack if the change were to take effect today. A pack of “bargain” cigarettes, say 305s, would go for about $4.89 per single pack.

However, this price increase wouldn’t necessarily cause smokers to kick the habit.

“The only time I’ll quit smoking is when they quit making unfiltered Pall Malls,” said Frank Carnelli, owner of Gatorz Bar & Grill in Port Charlotte.

Carnelli has smokers who frequent his restaurant and said he doesn’t believe an increase in price will change many people’s ways, including his.

Singled out   

The general consensus from smokers and tobacco shop owners from around the area is that they feel singled out.

“Anytime they raise taxes (on tobacco) it affects us,” said Stephanie Gluski, manager of Cheap Smokes in Englewood. “The customers will still come, but probably not buy as much.”

Carnelli posed a question: “Why not tax drinkers?”

That might sound odd coming from a bar owner, but Carnelli points out that drinking is just another thing people do to relax or enjoy themselves.

Sandi Snider, an exsmoker from North Port, posed similar questions: “Cost does not matter to what people enjoy. Do you still go out to eat even though those prices have skyrocketed? Do you go to the movies? Do you put gas in your car for miscellaneous running around? Same thing.”

According to the Obama administration, $78 billion would be raised in a 10-year span from the federal increase in tobacco tax. If Obama’s budget proposal is approved and there are no setbacks, the changes would go into effect during the new fiscal year beginning Oct. 1.

Staff writers Elaine Allen-Emrich and Tom Chang contributed to this report.

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About Tom

Tom Chang is a freelance journalist with a background in multimedia journalism and web publishing. He is currently pursuing his Masters in Journalism and Media Studies from the University of South Florida St.Petersburg. He graduated in 2004 with a Bachelors Degree in Mass Communications at USF Tampa. Tom's interests include a little bit of everything from entertainment to sports. He also wishes to delve into creative writing writing sci-fi/fantasy stories. Tom was recently the Online Editor for USF St. Petersburg's the Crow's Nest, he joined the staff in January 2010 where he started freelance writing, photographing, copy editing and later became a staff writer. Tom’s freelance experience in journalism amassed a wide range of companies including Creative Loafing, The Focus Magazine, Lutz News, Examiner.com, and Tampa Tribune.
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