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  • Shelley Schlender

Many people make New Year's resolutions: to lose weight…to exercise…and, among smokers, to quit their tobacco habit. In Colorado, smokers now have an extra reason to stop, thanks to a ballot initiative passed in November that tripled the state's cigarette tax, effective New Year's Day. With this tax increase, Colorado joined two other states that passed similar measures this past fall, and it raises to 38 the number of states that have increased tobacco taxes since 2001.

Health experts say these tax hikes do decrease smoking, especially among teenagers. A visit to Fairview High School in Boulder, Colorado, finds a dozen teens lighting up cigarettes during their lunch break. The students are not allowed to smoke on school grounds. So they gather just beyond the parking lot on a grassy knoll they have given a ghoulish name. "This is Cancer Hill, where we develop our cancer in between classes and on our off periods," says one boy. "We come here to get cancer," another says with a laugh.

Some of these young people smoke quite a few cigarettes every day. "10 to 20?" guesses one boy. A girl nearby says she smokes half a pack. "Smoking's so bad for you…it's so addictive," she admits. "But it's so good at the same time. I'm trying to quit."

These teens now have a new reason to quit, thanks to the tobacco tax hike approved by voters in November that has just tripled the state's cigarette tax -- raising it by 64 cents per pack. Before the increase, Colorado had one of the lowest tobacco tax rates in the United States. "We were 43rd in the country, at a 20-cent-per-pack rate," says Colorado House Majority Leader Alice Madden, a big supporter of the new tax. "So now, that's going up 64 cents for a total of 84 cents tax per pack. And that will raise about $175 million per year." Most of those millions will go toward health programs for Colorado residents without medical insurance, plus smoking cessation and prevention programs.

Simply raising the cost of cigarettes makes non-smokers less likely to start, according to the U.S. government's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Ms. Madden says that is important. "If you can keep someone from starting that first cigarette and getting into the habit," she says, "that is the best bet for keeping kids from smoking."

For the countless smokers who have become addicted and want to quit, many health experts recommend picking up the telephone and calling a tobacco "quit line." Trained counselors help callers identify trouble areas they are facing in trying to kick the habit, and they assist in setting a quit date. In addition, they make return calls to offer additional support - especially on such occasions as the third day after quitting, when withdrawal symptoms peak. "That's one of the hardest times," says Maren, one of the counselors at the Colorado Quitline. "The other hard times tend to crop up around major stressors. If a family member dies or a divorce…that type of thing."

Since the program started two years ago, the Colorado Quitline has helped 27,000 people. Quitline directors hope that some of the new tobacco tax revenues will go toward advertising their services, so that even more people call in.

Many smoking prevention programs train student volunteers, who then talk with younger, middle school children about the dangers of cigarettes.18-year old Patrick Matsen-Williams, a volunteer in Boulder, says he is especially disgusted at how tobacco manufacturers entice young kids. "Like convenience stores," he says. "They were caught putting tobacco ads next to candy aisles." It is an alarmingly common ploy, according to the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids. Patrick shakes his head. "We learned they're trying to [target children] as low as six or seven years old to try to get kids to smoke."

Lisa Cech, the Safe and Drug Free Schools coordinator for Boulder Valley, endorses the use of teen counselors as one of the most effective ways to reach young people. "They tune out adults eventually," she says. "So, by having other kids come in and talk to them, closer to their own age, they're more likely to listen to what they have to say and learn from them." She hopes to get some of the funds from the increased tobacco tax to train additional peer counselors.

But the teens lighting up on Cancer Hill have mixed views about the tax. "We don't have enough money to have the tobacco tax go up," complains one boy. "I'm not annoyed," admits another, "because at least they're trying to help you quit, in a way." One of their friends dismisses the goal of the tax increase. "In Massachusetts," she says, "it's like six dollars a pack, and people still smoke. So I don't think 60 cents or whatever is going to make a difference at all."

Smoking-related illnesses currently cost Colorado one billion dollars a year in health care expenses. Having successfully raised the state tobacco tax, many anti-smoking activists at the local level are now pushing for smoking bans in more restaurants, offices and public buildings.

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