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Does a pack a day keep the economic stress away?

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Despite rising cigarette prices and a pinched economy, a recent survey shows people may be smoking more to cope. (Photo by Amy B Wang/CNS)

abw_090213_smoking2.jpg

Despite rising cigarette prices and a pinched economy, a recent survey shows people may be smoking more to cope. (Photo by Amy B Wang/CNS)

Between planning her wedding, preparing for a possible return to graduate school and worrying over the economy, one thing became clear to Jessica Lee, 27, last year: She needed to look for ways to save money. The special events planner and her fiancé, who works at a nonprofit, began cooking more meals in their apartment, on New York’s Upper West Side. They reined in their shopping, and toyed with the idea of temporarily moving in with her parents in New Jersey.

But Lee’s Nat Sherman cigarettes, which she estimates cost about $1,000 a year for the two packs she smokes weekly, stayed put.

“With all the stress around, it’s not a great time to try to quit,” says Lee, who’s been smoking for nearly 10 years.

In an uncertain economy, some smokers have tried to curb their habits to save money, especially in places like New York with high cigarette taxes. But according to a recent survey from the American Legacy Foundation, during recessions smoking may actually increase.

“The ongoing financial downturn is having a clear and immediate effect on smokers,” finds the survey, put out in 2008 by the Washington, D.C.-based anti-smoking group. In it, 77 percent of smokers surveyed reported increased stress levels because of the economy, and of those respondents, a quarter said they now smoke more cigarettes per day, not fewer.

“Stress is a major reason for relapsing for smoking,” says Dr. Joseph Difranza, a professor of family medicine and an addiction specialist at the University of Massachusetts. According to Difranza, historically there has been an increase in smoking whenever an external crisis—like September 11 or a recession—takes place. “A lot of people are psychologically dependent on their cigarettes,” he says. “They feel like they can’t cope without their cigarettes.”

Of the smokers surveyed in the American Legacy study, only one in four said they considered quitting to save money. Although quitting a pack-a-day habit could save thousands of dollars a year, some smokers say this equation rarely comes into play during the moment of purchase in a recession.

“I figure out a way,” says Steven Moorhead, 21, a culinary student in Rhode Island, of paying for cigarettes on a student budget. He smokes a pack of Camel Lights a day, which costs him about $50 per week. “My priorities include cigarettes before anything. Then rent, then utilities, then tuition, then transportation. I can always walk.”

“We were just working on our budgets for this year, and I thought, ‘ugh, I gotta go have a cigarette,’” says Lauren Palmer, 41, a business development manager in New York who smokes half a pack to a pack of Camel Lights daily. Each pack costs anywhere from $8 to $10. She says financial matters in the office have triggered her smoking urges more than personal ones. “It’s like, ‘Are we on track? Are we going to make our numbers?’ That’s a day-in, day-out worry, and it surely doesn’t help.”

The struggle to give up smoking has even dogged President Barack Obama, who also has been stressing over the economy. According to Dr. Donna Vallone, a head researcher at the American Legacy Foundation, “People will delay quitting because they just can’t take on one more stressful thing in their lives.”

Still, the recession has not helped the tobacco industry. In late January, Philip Morris, whose parent company, the Altria Group, is the largest cigarette-maker in U.S., laid off 141 people at its cigarette factory in Concord, N.C., the first round of layoffs in a plan to close the plant by the end of 2010. Reynolds American, the second-largest tobacco company in the U.S., reported a 13 percent decrease in net income for the fourth quarter of 2008.

And cigarettes are not getting any cheaper. In January, Congress passed a bill to increase the per-pack federal tax on cigarettes to $1, up from 39 cents, the rate that has been in place since 1997. The increase per pack will go into effect in April, and lawmakers hope that the difference will generate $32.8 billion to finance a newly expanded child health care program. Difranza predicts additional taxes will follow suit and says this has traditionally resulted in people cutting back on smoking.

“Then again, I have a patient who just called today,” Difranza says. “He couldn’t pay the $3 co-payment on his prescription to get his medicine, but he’d gone out and bought a new pack of cigarettes.”

Jessica Lee has taken to smoking half a cigarette at a time and putting the un-smoked half back in the box for later. “It becomes more of a survival tactic than a financial burden,” she says. Occasionally, she substitutes her preferred brand with Parliaments, which are $2 to $3 cheaper per pack. “But I don’t really feel like I’m saving that much over time. The savings aren’t worth it to me.”

Lauren Palmer, however, says that on a recent trip to the Manhattan newsstand where she frequently buys her cigarettes, the vendor informed her that the price per pack could soon be rising to $11.

“Eleven times 365—that’s like $4,000,” she says. “It’s crazy. I just walked away.”

E-mail: abw2124@columbia.edu