While some convenience stores in South Carolina reported brisk sales of cigarettes Wednesday leading up to the state's first tax hike on the product in 33 years, many clerks said smokers seem to be taking the increase in stride.
Starting Thursday, a pack of smokes in this tobacco-growing state will cost an extra 50 cents. It marks the state's first change to the tax since 1977.
The current state tax of 7 cents per pack has been the nation's lowest since 2005. At 57 cents, the tax still falls at the back of the pack, ranking 42nd, but ahead of neighboring North Carolina's 45 cents and Georgia's 37.
South Carolina joins 46 other states, plus the District of Columbia, which have raised their tax at least once since 2002. The increase comes on the heels of last year's federal cigarette tax hike to $1.01.
The operator of a convenience store just north of the Georgia line said customers were stocking up Wednesday, but he expects business to drop drastically after midnight. Kenny Patel said many came from Georgia to take advantage of the last few hours of the lower tax, buying two and three cartons at a time.
"They come from Georgia and all the way from Florida," Patel said at a Citgo off Interstate 95 in Hardeeville. "It's going to affect us big time. In one day, that's it. Then we'll get nothing. Those folks who passed the bill, they don't have a business so I don't think they understand."
The tax is expected to generate $125 million over the next year. Most of that will be put aside for growing Medicaid costs, not to be touched until July 2011, while $5 million will go to smoking prevention and cessation programs, and another $5 million to the Medical University of South Carolina's cancer center.
Unlike two years ago, legislators mustered enough votes last month to pass the hike over the veto of Gov. Mark Sanford, who wanted to use the money for income tax reduction. Anti-tobacco groups, which have fought for an increase for a decade in this GOP-controlled state, say the hike will prevent more than 20,000 youth from picking up the deadly habit and eventually bring down health care costs.
"Those kids will grow up to be adults who never smoke. Parents who never smoke. Grandparents who never smoke. Today we are creating generations of smoke-free and tobacco-free homes for our beautiful state," said Kelly Davis, coordinator of the South Carolina Tobacco Collaborative, which includes cancer, lung and heart associations.
As of last year, one in five South Carolina adults smoked. Health advocates expect 12,000 of them will choose to quit rather than pay more.
Callers to the state's "quit for keeps" hotline, started in 2006, spiked the week the Legislature overrode the veto, and continues to be higher than normal, said Mary-Kathryn Craft, with the state Department of Health and Environmental Control's tobacco prevention division.
Over the last year, nearly 2,200 smokers called for help. She expects the number to keep growing as the $5 million, among other things, allows the agency to advertise its 800 number, offer counseling to more people and provide nicotine patches and gum to more than just the most needy.
Convenience store clerks say customers constantly pledge to quit, but rarely do.
"I think it's terrible they're taxing the addicted," said Pamela Moreland-Downs, a clerk at a Corner Pantry in Columbia, who has smoked for 38 years. "Everybody keeps saying they'll quit, but it's hard."
She said she bought one carton before the hike, avoiding an extra $5 in tax, but her customers' buying habits haven't changed, even though she has informed them.
At an Exxon across the city, employee Alysia Smith said she's the only one stocking up. If customers buy extra, she said, it's generally two packs instead of one, and they seem nonchalant about it.
But at a discount tobacco store in rural Manning, customers are just plain mad.
"They say, 'Why can't we put the price on liquor instead of cigarettes?'" said Lisa Rivera, manager of Carolina Discount Tobacco, in the state's tobacco country. Over the past week, they've been buying two cartons, instead of a pack, she said.
Associated Press Writer Bruce Smith contributed to this report.