Bethel smokers pay less for cigarettes than urban dwellers

Kyle Hopkins
A pack of cigarettes rests on a cash register displaying the price in The Tobacco Shop, owned by Corey Stelmach, in Bethel, AK on Tuesday, September 25, 2012. 120925
Bob Hallinen
Corey Stelmach, owner of The Tobacco Shop, talks about the proposed Bethel city tobacco sales tax in his shop in Bethel, AK on Tuesday, September 25, 2012. 120925
Bob Hallinen
Adam Turrentine draws on his cigarette on the street in Bethel, AK on Wednesday, September 26, 2012. Turrentine also uses Iqmik. Iqmik is a mixture of punk ash and tobacco which is used like chew. 120926
Bob Hallinen

BETHEL -- Not everything costs more here than in Anchorage.

Apples do. And milk and Cocoa Puffs and gas, which is $6.75 a gallon. Just about anything you might want to buy in the remote Western Alaska hub is pricier. But look closely and you'll find one big exception.


The same pack of Marlboro Reds for which smokers pay $9.49 at the Anchorage Holiday station is just $8.60 at The Tobacco Shop here. While prices vary from store to store, Bethel smokers are consistently paying anywhere from a few cents to roughly a dollar less than those in Anchorage.

That may soon change. The heads of two heavyweight Bethel-based Native organizations are pushing city leaders to consider a new excise tax on tobacco.

"A 10 percent increase in the price of cigarettes can reduce consumption by nearly 4 percent among adults and can have an even greater effect among youth and other price-sensitive groups," Gene Peltola, chief executive officer for the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp., wrote in a letter to city leaders last month.

The regional health organization runs the Bethel hospital and is the largest employer in the city. Bethel Mayor Joe Klejka works there. So do two other members of the newly elected council.

"There is a health care mentality on the council," said Peltola, who is the father of Vice Mayor Gene Peltola Jr.

The reason Anchorage cigarettes are more expensive than in the Bush is that the municipality taxes tobacco at a rate of about $2 a pack. The cost is added to existing state tobacco taxes.

"In the YK Delta, nearly 50 percent of our teens have used tobacco," Peltola wrote. "If utilized as part of a comprehensive plan, a tobacco tax is a proven strategy to help prevent youth from using tobacco products.

The president of the Association of Village Council Presidents, which represents about 50 villages in the region, wrote an identical letter to City Hall on Sept. 6.

"We would like to encourage people not to use iqmik and tobacco," AVCP chief executive Myron Naneng said in an interview.

No formal tobacco tax proposal has been filed with the city, said Bethel City Clerk Lori Strickler.

Strickler said she had not yet seen a copy of Peltola's letter but a council member has asked city staff to start researching tobacco tax ordinances. It's unclear if a Bethel tax would include tobacco used for iqmik, she said.

A draft proposal for a separate tax aimed at increasing the price of soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages in a region struggling with tooth decay is before the city Finance Committee, she said.

Finance Committee member Clark Davis, a cab driver and Bethel pastor, said people he's talked to about the potential sin taxes are skeptical that money collected by the city for tobacco or soda sales would in turn be used to pay for public health programs.

Some Bethel shoppers, meanwhile, said there's only so much they'd be willing to pay for smokes.

Pauline Nictori, visiting from Kwethluk and shopping at Swanson's grocery store, said she's an occasional smoker. Sometimes she chews iqmik too, she said.

If cigarettes prices rose to $11 to $15 a pack, she might no longer buy them she said. She'd be less inclined to buy a 20-ounce bottle of soda, which is now usually $3.17 in the Bethel, if the price grew to $5 or more.


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