Thursday, July 21, 2005

Bootlegging Butts

I don't smoke, so I can't fully appreciate the addictive nature of nicotine. I mention this as a prelude to the story below, since I recently was used as a "procurement agent", to buy cigarettes "cheap" in a different state.

I don't follow the price of cigs too closely, but I see various signs in my state (Connecticut) showing them to be anywhere from $4 to $6 per pack. That is just nuts. I know that the "Sin Taxes" in this state are the easiest to levy, the thought being that people will still want to use this stuff and will pay through the nose for their particular poison, but these prices just seemed excessive.

I'm old enough to remember being able to buy cigarettes as a kid, too. My sisters used to smoke as teenagers, and since it was being kept secret from Mom, I had some good blackmail material. Couple that with their laziness, and unwillingness to schlep over to the local 7-11, and I had myself a nice little racket going, as they would often enlist my services as the courier. Not only would I buy them their cancer sticks, but was able to extort the change from them, which went a long way toward building my baseball card collection. The kicker? I would be sent to the store with $1, and get change. Granted, this was 30 years ago (God I'm old...), and the price of everything has gone up, but not to the tune of 400%!

Anyway, my family was planning to spend a long weekend in New Hampshire recently, and when my In-laws caught wind of this, they asked if we would pick up a carton of cigarettes, since they are supposedly very cheap up there. I thought it odd that they gave us $50 to work with. Again, just as in my youth, we were told we could keep the change. Sweet! I was already thinking how much beer (not baseball cards) I could end up with after buying one lousy carton of smokes. This would be a sweet deal, indeed. Keep in mind that despite having a general idea of the per pack price in CT, I didn't think to do the math and estimate that a carton would cost around $50 (or more) in the Nutmeg state.

I arrived in NH, and headed toward a grocery store to pick up some food items, and figured that would be as good a place as any to grab the smokes. Since cigarettes are now kept under lock and key, I had to walk over to the case and point out which brand I wanted. (How many freakin' brands are there? How different can they all be from one another? I defy any smokers to smoke 10 different cigarettes in a row and tell me the brand names.) I chose Vantage, low tar. Mmmm....tar. Then I saw the price - $37. Thirty seven dollars! This is a bargain? Surely I would return home, deliver the goods to my in-laws, and get a response like "That wasn't much of a deal", right?

Nope! Apparently, that is a bargain! They could barely contain their joy at this news, and regretted that they didn't ask us to pick up a few more.

How in world could someone have this habit, and afford to keep it up? At this point, crack is cheaper. At what point does the financial strain begin to outweigh the obvious health risks? These must be the most powerful, most addictive things on Earth - people use them despite 1.) knowing that they are ridiculously bad for their health, and 2.) paying an ever-increasing amount of money for them. Not to mention the impact later in life when the health issues inevitably kick in. To underscore this, I've actually seen people wheeling a portable oxygen tank to the smoking areas in an office building, and lighting up. Huh?

Get some will power people! The habit is costly, deadly, makes you smell like crap. How do you get started? By trying to look cool as a teenager, despite the fact that nobody's first experience inhaling smoke could be described as positive?

Yet the tobacco companies are virtually printing money, and have grown large enough to acquire so many other companies and products that even the most ardent anti-smoker is lining the pockets of Big Tobacco when buying products like beer and certain food. What a country!

These are very odd times indeed. Smokers (in the US anyway) have become social pariahs, being roped off and sent to specific areas to do their smoking, and being prohibited outright in most others. It seems that there are less people smoking now than before, doesn't it? I can't even think of a handful of people I come in contact with who smoke, whereas many years ago there seemed to be smokers everywhere.

Admittedly, I come off as an activist, but I'm no zealot. Smoking killed my father, and despite the fact he was hooked long before the Surgeon General's warnings were first published in 1964, he continued right up until his death six years later. I guess he was too far gone to stop by then, and quitting might not have made a difference for him. I'll never know. But cigarettes are legal in this country, and I fully support the rights of any American to do whatever they choose so long as it doesn't harm another person or another person's property. Smoke away, smokers, just don't do it around me.
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