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Pam McDugald arranges cigarettes on a shelf at Discount Tobacco Outlet on Sixth Avenue Southeast.
Daily photo by Gary Cosby Jr.
Pam McDugald arranges cigarettes on a shelf at Discount Tobacco Outlet on Sixth Avenue Southeast.

Boycott's secondhand impact
Buying cigarettes elsewhere would
hurt schools worse than city

By Evan Belanger
evanb@decaturdaily.com 340-2442

It's been suggested before. If you don't like Decatur's ban on smoking in public places, then drive outside the city limits the next time you need a nicotine fix.

The apparent thought process being that by purchasing tobacco elsewhere, you can deny the municipal government millions in coveted cigarette-tax funds and force the City Council majority to reconsider the ban.

But a tobacco boycott might not be the answer for those angry about the new law. Worse still, a boycott would rob city schools of as much funding as the municipal government.

Little harm to city

According to Decatur tax records, revenue from smokers accounts for less than one-half of 1 percent of the city's $53 million budget.

Records show that on average the city's tax on cigarettes and other tobacco products generates about $486,818 per year. Unfortunately for would-be boycotters, half of that money goes to education, not to the municipal government, reducing the city's take to about $243,409 a year.

City leaders say that number does not reflect a significant portion of Decatur's annual income.

Mayor Don Kyle told The Daily that as a former "cigarette addict" himself, he doubts smokers would be able to pull off a large-scale boycott. "When you want them, you're not going to wait 20 minutes to drive out of town to buy them," he said.

Harming others

Even if a boycott were 100 percent effective, Kyle said, the boycotters would be doing more harm to others than to the city government.

"The dollar amount is relatively insignificant as far as impacting government services," he said. "I would personally be much more concerned about the individuals that own the businesses they'd be boycotting and hurting much more than the city government."

School officials reacted differently when questioned about a possible boycott.

The Decatur School System receives half of all the revenue from the city's tobacco taxes. According to Chief Financial Officer Melanie Maples, that money goes directly into the school system's general fund.

She said it is not used for anything in particular, meaning it could buy textbooks, fund school-building improvements or even pay for teachers' salaries.

While city officials say the cigarette tax is relatively insignificant in the grander scheme, Decatur Schools Superintendent Sam Houston said things are a little tighter on the education side.

The city school system's General Fund is approaching $50 million, but Houston said any lost revenue would be sorely missed.

"If you look at it as a proportion of the budget it doesn't seem like much," he said. "But if you look at it in terms of teacher's salaries, that would cover approximately four teacher units, so that kind of gives you a little perspective on it."

Houston said he hoped no Decatur residents want to pull money out of the school system for any reason.

Whatever the case, it seems that if a boycott is coming to Decatur, it hasn't hit yet.

Clerks polled by The Daily at five local convenience stores this week said they have not noticed any significant decline in tobacco sales since the ordinance went into effect Oct. 1.

Decatur's new smoking ordinance prohibits smoking in all public places, including bars, restaurants, offices, outdoor sporting arenas and any other place frequented by the public or employees.

The ordinance has been a hot-topic issue in Decatur since the City Council passed the measure 3-2 Aug. 6.

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