By Senator, Lena C. Taylor
Loose Cigarette Sales Must Stop
The first time most people really thought about the illegal nature of selling single or loose cigarettes from a pack was likely five years ago. In 2014, Eric Garner died in New York City after a police officer placed him in a chokehold, while arresting him on suspicion of selling single cigarettes from packs without a tax stamp. I remember the story knocked the wind out of me, because someone lost their life because of a “loosie.” Simply put, “loosie” is the street name for a single cigarette sold usually at the corner store. Yet, there is a whole informal economy based on this practice.
Many of us saw it coming. In 1981, a pack of Kool cigarettes cost seventy-five cents a pack. Regular smokers lamented the price and said if the figure ever hit $1.00 per pack, they would quit smoking. Today, the average cost of a pack of cigarettes is about $6.50 and a premium brand cost nearly $9.00 a pack in Wisconsin. In New York, that price has surged to $12.85 a pack. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that more than 34 million adults in the United States were smokers in 2017. The CDC estimates that 2,000 people younger than 18 years old smoke their first cigarette.
With an estimated 80 million people making the federal minimum wage of $7.25, most people would need to work anywhere from an hour to an hour-and-a-half to buy a pack of this highly addictive tobacco product. It was no surprise to see consumers looking to purchase cigarettes as cheaply as possible. For many, that meant buying one or two cigarettes for less than a dollar, at a time. In fact, this phenomenon of selling loose cigarettes is most often concentrated in low income communities and disproportionately impacts people of color.
With all we know about the harmful effect of smoking on our health, through direct or indirect use, smoking remains one of the nation’s biggest killers. More than 80,000 deaths are attributed to cigarettes each year. In Wisconsin, roughly 7,900 adults die annually from smoking. Further, researchers predict that 106,000 youth under 18 years right now will ultimately die prematurely from smoking. The toll of smoking includes annual health care costs of $2.66 billion and each Wisconsin household incurs about $745 for smoking caused government expenditures, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
The total economic cost of smoking is over $300 billion a year.
It is with this understanding that I appreciate the work of the Wisconsin African American Tobacco Prevention Networks’ efforts to educate our community about the health costs and legal costs of cigarettes. Their research conveys the belief that 9 out of 10 loose cigarettes are sold to youth under 18 and that it is far too easy for youth to purchase tobacco products. We have the ability to change these numbers. Therefore, I implore you to contact the Milwaukee Police Department about area stores that are selling loose cigarettes at 414-935-7430. These sales are not just illegal, they are slowly killing us.