What Do Chinese Corner Store Owners Say about Philly’s Cigarette Tax Hike?

Two months ago, the City of Philadelphia began levying a two-dollar-per-pack cigarette tax to fund the public schools. This measure turns out to be quite painful to some Chinese restaurant owners.

by Bole Yuan and Haojun Liu

In some areas of Philadelphia, the only businesses standing might as well be the Chinese takeout restaurants, or Chinese corner stores. In addition to quick meals, snackages and soft drinks, most of them sell cigarettes to diversify their revenue. We randomly picked 45 stores and asked them if they felt any impact since the cigarette tax increase was implemented. Eight of them, all from different zip codes, agreed to share their views.

Please note that all of them spoke on the condition of anonymity. We then refer them with their neighborhoods.

To begin with, most Chinese corner stores now sell a pack of Newport for $9. It was $7 before.

We asked: Is there any change to the sale of cigarette since the tax increased?

“A bit of decline, but it’s OK. Some customers say they would purchase cigarettes elsewhere.” – Owner of A Restaurant in Kingsessing/West Philladelphia

A restaurant owner in North Philly said she probably saw seven or eight cartons less in monthly sale, while the gross revenue of his restaurant was down for over a thousand dollars. “Customer who used to buy cigarettes here also bought other things, like sodas,” she said. “Now they don’t buy anything.”

Another North Philly restaurant owner said he used to sell five to six packs per day “when it’s cheaper.”

“Now we can only sell two or three packs per day,” he said. “Some people would cursed at the price and claimed that gas stations have cheaper cigarettes. Since there are many competitors around here, many customers will go to those owned by the Americans. We can only make a little money after everybody else has closed for the day; otherwise, we can never survive.”

“In a shop like this, we have been suffering from sleep deprivation already,” he added.

Another women who owns a restaurant in Kensington said the cigarette price is too expensive for her customer. “We can only count on selling more food,” she said.

“No one wants it.” – Owner of a restaurant in Tioga.

This restaurant owner has a lot to say about his experience selling cigarettes.

“It was quite an impact, though the sale has been dismal all along,” he said of the recent tax increase. In addition, he claimed that the police failed to stop people from selling loose cigarettes, which is illegal in Pennsylvania.

“Our business is not allowed to sell loose cigarettes; we have to sell pack by pack, not the single ones,” he said. “The police did nothing to stop them. If the government allows us to sell loose cigarettes, we can have more revenue and therefore pay more tax.”

Loose cigarette is indeed a sensitive topic right now: if the authorities in New York City had allowed people to sell loose cigarettes, Eric Garner might not die. However, we are not going to speculate the rationale behind the law. What we want to know is whether this restaurant owner’s claim about the leniency in loose cigarette control is addressed, and whether the cigarette tax increase has anything to do with it.

We contacted the Police Department, the department of Licenses and Inspections and the Mayor’s Office. Mayor’s Press Secretary Mark McDonald told us that neither the police or the L&I have the answer for us. The enforcement of the law is conducted by the state’s Department of Revenue. So far we are still waiting for them to respond. (And, yes, we have to say: To be continued.)