Smoking in Czech Rep to become an increasingly expensive habit

Up to now cigarettes in the Czech Republic have been among the cheapest in the European Union. But all this is about to change. The government has announced plans to raise consumer taxes on cigarettes over the next three years, making it an increasingly expensive habit.

Regular smokers in the Czech Republic found little solace in the news that the price of cigarettes will go up. On a busy Prague street some shrugged, saying at most they would cut down, while others admitted once prices rose they would consider quitting for good.

"I guess I'm going to have to quit, what can you do? I'm a pensioner and it really hits my pension check. I've already reduced the number I smoke to only ten a day."

"I only smoke once in a while, so it doesn't really matter to me. But, on the whole I don't think it will have a great effect - really making people quit."

"Definitely it's a good thing. I'm for it. I myself am not yet ready quit but hope to do so before smoking begins affecting my health. When the prices do go up it will force me to consider whether I really want to put my money into cigarettes instead of, for example, sport."

The government's decision will bring the cost of cigarettes more in line with the Czech Republic's EU neighbours: till now tobacco taxes have been among the lowest in the union. A quality brand pack of twenty still costs an average of just 50 crowns - that's only 1.6 Euros - or around 2 dollars U.S. In a country where polls suggest every third person smokes, low cost no doubt plays an important role.

Non-smokers as well as health officials naturally welcome any pressure that would persuade large numbers of smokers to give up, or at least "clean-up their act", like this woman told us at the top of Prague's Wenceslas Square.

"I think smokers should be more respectful of others: I don't throw little pieces of paper around the way they toss their cigarette butts, I don't blow smoke in the faces of others or smoke where I shouldn't."

The full hike in cigarette taxes will not be felt immediately - but in three decisive waves: in April 2005 the cost should rise by six crowns per pack, in 2006 a further seven. By 2007 a single pack could cost as much as 80 crowns.

That, health officials say, will ultimately lower the number of smokers in the country, especially if the tax hike is followed by legislation banning smoking in public places and supermarket sales.

Cigarette lobbies argue that smokers will continue their habit by shifting to cheaper brands. Even so it seems that for smokers the Czech Republic will soon become a more difficult place for them.