COUGH UP THAT CASH

STATE GOVERNMENTS THINK THE TIME MAY BE RIGHT TO RECOUP BILLIONS FOR THE HEALTH COSTS OF SMOKING

Ira Stark, a retired cabbie, has a smoking habit that cost taxpayers more than $20,000 last year, and this year the meter is still running. The 53-year-old Miami resident smoked three packs a day for almost four decades; now he has emphysema and needs bottled oxygen to breathe. Medicaid-i.e., taxpayers-foots the bill for his respiratory problems ($400 a month for oxygen, $18,000 for a nine-day hospital stay last year). Despite the tab he's already rung up, Stark still puffs his way through half a pack a day: "I just have this unbelievable craving,'' he says. Stark admits nobody made him start...

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