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NYC Boosts Cigarette Prices to $13, Bans Sales by Pharmacies

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  • De Blasio signs biggest crackdown on smoking since 2003
  • Buildings in city must prohibit tobacco use in common areas

New York boosted the minimum price of a pack of cigarettes by 24 percent to $13 and placed a cap on the number of tobacco sellers, part of the city’s biggest crackdown on smoking in more than a decade.

The anti-tobacco moves came in the form of a seven-point package of laws that Mayor Bill de Blasio signed Monday. The measures create a retail license fee for sellers of electronic cigarettes and almost double the licensing fee for tobacco retailers to $200. The city is also requiring all apartment buildings of three or more units to create explicit smoking policies, while banning smoking in all common areas. 

Pharmacies will be prohibited from selling tobacco as their licenses begin to expire in 2018. The move will affect drug stores like Walgreens and Duane Reade that still sell cigarettes.

The measures represent the city’s most aggressive public health assault on tobacco use since former Mayor Michael Bloomberg instituted a series of smoking bans in workplaces -- including bars, restaurants and nightclubs -- beginning in 2003.

Tobacco use generally, and smoking in particular, has been linked to cancer, and heart and respiratory diseases. Bloomberg credited the anti-tobacco measures in his administration to increasing the average life expectancy in New York by three years during the 12 years in which the polices were in effect. (The former mayor is founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent, Bloomberg LP.)

Sending Message

“Even though tobacco is a leading cause of premature death across the country, Big Tobacco will stop at nothing to hook people on these deadly products,” de Blasio said while signing the bills. “We are sending a loud and clear message that we will not let their greed kill any more New Yorkers without a fight.”

Brittany Adams, a spokeswoman for RAI Services Co., a subsidiary of tobacco company Reynolds American Inc., said the mayor’s policy would only increase contraband cigarette sales.

“This ordinance will most likely only further exacerbate the illicit trade of cigarettes,” Adams said. 

Altria Group Inc., which sells Marlboro, didn’t immediately have a comment on the price increase.

In 12 years since the city government began restricting tobacco use through taxes, bans and advertising campaigns, smoking declined to about 14 percent in 2015 from 21.5 percent in 2002, according to surveys conducted by the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. That’s a drop of about 900,000 residents. The administration’s goal is to reduce smokers to about 12 percent of the population, a decrease of about 160,000, in the next three years, de Blasio said.

$13 Minimum

The laws will raise the minimum price of a cigarette pack to $13 from $10.50, and reduce the number of stores selling tobacco by 50 percent through attrition. No new tobacco retail dealer licenses will be issued in community districts until the total decreases to below the cap. The city’s 8,300 current tobacco retailers may retain their licenses, unless they are pharmacies. Health officials estimate the law could reduce by 40 percent the number of tobacco sellers citywide within 10 years.

“The single most important thing you can do for your health is to stop smoking,” said Health Commissioner Mary Bassett. “As a former smoker, I know how hard it is to quit. That’s why these laws are so important -- they will make it easier for New Yorkers to quit smoking or never start.”

Jack Russo, a tobacco industry analyst at Edward Jones & Co., said the moves by de Blasio represent more of the same for the tobacco industry. Smokers will still buy the product even when companies raise prices to maintain profits, he said.

“This has been ongoing for many years now,” Russo said. “Taxes keep going up on the products and the manufacturers respond by raising prices to offset the higher excise taxes. You would think consumers would say, ‘I’m not going to pay that.’ However, this consumer is addicted and they might pay anything for their fix.”

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