Brock Mitchell says he'll likely continue to smoke cigarettes to… (Lenny Gilmore/RedEye )
Sean Keen was spending about $400 a month on his two-pack-a-day smoking habit, not including the gas money he spent driving from Bridgeport to Indiana for cheaper smokes.
As Cook County smokers stare down the barrel of a new $1-per-pack cigarette tax hike next year, the 32-year-old is spending $95 a month on patches and pills to kick his addiction.
"It had gotten to the point where my addiction was holding me prisoner, like I was a slave to the vice," he said. "It took me a second to step away from it and say, 'Holy crap, this is controlling me in ways that I really don't like.' "
But not everyone is looking to ash their last smoke as prices go up.
"I wouldn't quit, I'm not a quitter," said Ariele Duggan, 23, of Humboldt Park. Duggan, who works at a bar, frequently gets deals on packs and began rolling her own cigarettes years ago, which is cheaper.
Still, she knows plenty of people who have moved to Chicago and quit because of high prices. She doesn't think those who already are used to the prices will stop.
"People bitch for a few weeks," she said. "But then you feel like a cigarette. Smokers are smokers."
With an estimated 20 percent of Chicago adults lighting up on a regular basis, the debate about whether to continue the habit is in high gear. It really heated up following the Cook County board's decision this month to add a $1 increase to a pack of smokes—on top of a $1 statewide bump in June. Will smokers continue to spring for a pack once the hike—which goes into effect March 1—brings the price of 20 cigarettes from $11 to $12, among the most expensive nationwide?
"There is that itch in my mind that says, 'You're going to miss it,' " Keen said. "You're going to miss that smoke when you're stressed out. It's going to be there for a while."
Brock Mitchell, 31, of Logan Square, said he doesn't plan to quit. It's too much of a stress reliever for him. He believes the hike is a good idea to deter younger smokers from starting, but as a smoker himself, he isn't looking forward to the higher price. He's quit a few times but always finds himself going back.
"Life is life," he said. "Stress is stress. It comes back."
It's unclear whether tax hikes actually affect the behavior of smokers. Cook County officials say they expect $25.6 million in extra revenue next year, after accounting for those who quit or leave the county to buy cigarettes. Historically, the extra revenue from tax hikes hasn't stayed constant. When the county last raised the cigarette tax by $1 per pack in 2006, collections initially rose by $46.5 million, the Tribune reported. But three years later, in 2009, the county collected $20.4 million less than it had in 2005.
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle told the Tribune editorial board in October that the intent of the hike is to deter smoking.
"Cigarettes are the principle cause of preventable disease in this country—respiratory diseases and cancer—and the higher we increase our cigarette prices, the more we discourage particularly young people from smoking and save [ourselves] the cost of treating people who are addicted to tobacco and nicotine for the rest of their lives," she said.
Quitting time is approaching for Brian Ferber, 38, of the West Loop. Ferber started smoking regularly in 1997, after the high school and college years when most people pick up the habit. He worked in marketing and spent one or two days a week in bars, handing out packs and samples of cigarettes for large tobacco companies.
"It was kind of ingrained in the lifestyle, and it was certainly part of the bar scene," he said.
But now, after paying almost $12 a pack for his brand, he's decided to make it a New Year's resolution to stop smoking a pack every two days. A recent visit home to see his mother in Pittsburgh also factored in.
"My mother hugged me as I was leaving, and she said, 'Promise me you're going to quit smoking,' " he said. "I just know that it's right. It needs to end at some point. I'm not saying it's going to be easy."
Ferber said while money also is a factor in his decision, he still isn't a fan of the tax.
"I've always operated from the 'People should have choice to do what they want' [standpoint]," he said. "You see how there are health concerns. The sin tax is a crutch for the government. It seems like it's gotten out of hand."
It costs HOW much?
Smokers in Chicago pay some of the highest prices per pack in the country. Come March 1, it's about to get even steeper. What's it like to be on a smoker's budget in Chicago? Here's a breakdown.
At around $12 a pack after the tax hike, a pack-a-day smoker will spend about $84 a week, $360 per month and $4,380 per year on the habit. That's a $365 increase after the dollar tax hike for a full calendar year.
A pack-a-day smoker in Chicago spends about 9.3 percent of his median household income on cigarettes, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. For those making less than $46,877, the percentage is even higher.
It costs more than the pack. In some cases, employers charge smokers more for health insurance than they do for non-smokers.
It even costs to quit, unless it's cold turkey. Nicotine replacements such as patches and gum aren't cheap. A one-week supply of Nicoderm CQ runs about $33 at Walgreens, for example, and 160 pieces of Nicorette Gum go for about $66. While many insurance companies cover the cost of some prescription smoking cessation pills with a co-pay, without that coverage, it can cost more than $100 depending on the prescription.
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