Smokers fuming

Rising costs leading some to roll their own

By Casey Farrar
Sentinel Staff
Published: Saturday, April 25
Shawna Richardson of Keene shakes her head as she takes a long drag of her cigarette during a smoking break on Winter Street Thursday afternoon.

She doesn’t agree with a 35-cent-a-pack cigarette tax hike proposed by state legislators, but will it lead her to quit?

“I’m too addicted,” she says. “I might cut back, but I won’t quit.”

Richardson, 48, has been smoking since she was 13. She smokes a pack a day, and while she takes a couple cigarette breaks during the day, most of her smoking happens in the hours before and after work.

She quit years ago while she was pregnant, but says her nicotine addiction drew her back.

New Hampshire is one of at least 22 states considering tobacco tax increases this year.

If the proposed tax hike passes and takes effect July 1, it would be the third state tax increase in two years — bringing taxes to $1.68 per pack.

In 2007, the tax increased by 28 cents and last October lawmakers added another another 25 cents.

The latest measure passed the N.H. House earlier this month and is being considered by the Senate Finance Committee.

Smokers have also been hit by a federal tax increase of 62 cents per pack that went into effect this month, bringing the federal tax to $1.01. Revenue from the increase is set to fund the State Children’s Health Insurance Program.

New Hampshire’s state cigarette tax is still lower than surrounding states and ranks 22nd in the country.

Vermont’s tax is $1.99; Maine and Connecticut charge $2; and Massachusetts smokers pay $2.51.

This month, a $1 increase brought Rhode Island’s state tax to $3.46 per pack, the highest in the nation. South Carolina holds the lowest state tax at 7 cents per pack, but pending legislation could increase it to as much as $1.

The highest combined state-local tax rate is a whopping $4.25 per pack in New York City.

While area smokers say the rising cost of cigarettes is a deterrent, none told The Sentinel that price increases would cause them to quit.

Candy Carr of Winchendon, Mass., works in Chesterfield, so she buys cigarettes in New Hampshire to save money.

She smokes a pack every three days, a habit she estimates costs her about $1,500 per year.

While she doesn’t like seeing cigarette prices go up, she says she understands why lawmakers might home in on tobacco products for added revenue.

“I get it,” Carr said. “It’s not a necessity of life. I’d rather see them do it this way than have milk or bread or egg prices go up by a dollar.”

And, she says, she supports putting the increased revenue for cigarettes toward health programs for children or programs aimed at helping smokers quit.

Roberta Mastrogiovanni, owner of the Corner News on Main Street in Keene, says customers talk to her about quitting all the time, but doesn’t know of any who have.

Her downtown shop sells cigarettes and materials for hand-rolled cigarettes, a cheaper option that many money-conscious smokers have been turning to recently, Mastrogiovanni says.

Prices for a pack of cigarettes at Corner News Thursday ranged from $3.99 to $7.40 per pack, averaging around $5.

The string of tax increases on cigarettes in recent years is “definitely a painful thing” for smokers, Mastrogiovanni says.

“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t hear story after story about the high prices of cigarettes,” said Mastrogiovanni, who has owned the downtown store for seven years. “To have another tax on top of that, everyone is going to be really irritable.”

And it’s something of a vicious cycle, Mastrogiovanni says, with financial woes during tough economic times leading some of her customers to smoke more to calm their nerves.

She hasn’t seen a drop in business because of the tax hikes, but says she wonders at what point people will draw the line.

Higher prices may be part of what’s leading more people to contact the Cheshire Coalition for Tobacco-Free Communities for help in quitting, says Program Director Kate McNally.

Requests for help have ratcheted up since the higher federal taxes kicked in this month, McNally says.

She meets with about six people per week for one-on-one consultations and leads support groups at Cheshire Medical Center/Dartmouth-Hitchcock Keene and Monadnock Community Hospital in Peterborough that range from three to eight people at a time.

The coalition also provides discounted nicotine patches and gum and has been branching out to the Internet with online support on the Keene hospital’s Web site and a Facebook group called Cheshire Tobacco Treatment.

McNally says higher prices may discourage smokers, but should go hand-in-hand with a well-funded, comprehensive plan to help people stop smoking.

“Having increased prices, providing support and doing prevention work with children are all pieces of it,” McNally said.

But for smokers, like Richardson, who say even higher taxes wouldn’t push them to quit, the proposed hike is likely to be a drag.

u Learn more about tobacco cessation programs by calling the N.H. Smokers’ Helpline and Tobacco Resource Center at 1-800-879-8678 or visiting the Cheshire Coalition for Tobacco-Free Communities link at www.cheshire-med.com.

Out of Africa, she talks peace

Nobel Peace Prize winner in Brattleboro touting book, film

By Casey Farrar
Sentinel Staff
Published Sunday, April 12
BRATTLEBORO – As a child in Kenya, Wangari Maathai’s mother gave her a small plot of land in the family’s garden to tend.

Maathai, who became Africa’s first female Nobel Peace Prize winner in 2004, is founder of the Green Belt Movement of Kenya, a grassroots organization that has planted more than 30 million trees across the country.

Honored by the Nobel committee for “her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace,” Maathai was Kenya’s Assistant Minister for Environment and Natural Resources from 2003 to 2005 under President Mwai Kibaki.

She spoke Saturday about her in the government and her advocacy for the creation of a constitution at a time when tensions were smoldering between the opposing political parties of Kibaki and now-Prime Minister Raila Odinga.

“I found myself right in the middle,” Maathai said. “I was trying to get them to speak.”

Kibaki and Odinga faced off in the 2007 presidential elections, with Kibaki named president despite violent protests and independent observers’ claims that the vote was marred by irregularities on both sides. Odinga was later named prime minister of the coalition government.

The political turmoil leading up to and following the elections, Maathai says, illustrates the broader corruption of political leaders in Africa who pit the continent’s thousands of ethnic communities — she calls them micro-nations — against each other in a grab for power and wealth.

“We look at ourselves as micro-nations and we need to accept that we’re different but need to cooperate, not only within national borders but also go regional,” Maathai says, pointing to the intergovernmental African Union as an example of cooperation.

And involvement from the rest of the world, including foreign aid money from the United States and other western countries, can have both positive and negative influences, Maathai said.

“If it is used properly, it is good,” Maathai said. “If it is not used properly, which is dependent on leadership, it is a handout.”

“People become dependent on handouts. It can destroy the capacity of people… It can make governments lazy.”

And while Maathai says she believes western leaders are getting the message that giving foreign aid money to corrupt governments is counter-intuitive, money continues to pour into the continent from Chinese government officials who don’t ask as many questions.

“Just when you think you’ve solved one problem, another one springs up,” Maathai said, adding that she thinks Kenya and other parts of Africa are losing ground on gains made in human rights over the last few decades.

But despite the turmoil she’s seen in her country, Maathai says she can always turn to nature to seek answers to larger questions.

“No matter how much money we have, no matter how much we feel we are satisfied materially, we feel that something can only be filled by something much greater in our lives…” Maathai said. “As we go around the city or wherever we are, the tree is one of the best ways to describe that which we search but we don’t know.”

Year after year, Maathai would plant the seeds in her garden a few days before her mother and watch delightedly as her plants bloomed first — only to be eaten by hungry birds.

But instead of being discouraged, Maathai was amazed that she could be part of nature’s cycle.

“That really helped me and grounded me on the land,” Maathai, 69, said of tending her childhood garden.

Speaking to a sold-out audience at Brattleboro’s Latchis Theatre Saturday afternoon, the Nobel Peace Prize winner discussed her environmental, political and human rights activism, along with the social and political challenges facing her native country and the whole of Africa.

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Dealing with the jobless days

Two recently laid-off residents try to cope

By Casey Farrar
Sentinel Staff
Published: Sunday, April 12
After more than a year without full-time work, Francie Fleck Yeager, 61, of Harrisville has developed something of a job hunting routine.

She spends a couple hours each morning scouring the Internet for job postings, then goes for a walk, jogs or plays tennis to get out before returning for an hour and a half to follow up on job leads before dinner. She also visits local businesses to hand out resumes and try to make personal connections.

A former math teacher, environmental manager and conference planner, Yeager has been searching for work since being laid off from Peterborough-based Staff Development for Educators Inc. (SDE) in 2007.

With unemployment in the Granite State rising steadily to 5.9 percent in February, more people whose days used to be a busy juggling act are finding themselves with a lot of time on their hands.

This is the story of how two Monadnock Region residents fill that time.

Putting her experience to use

Yeager says sometimes, it seems like there are no jobs out there.

She’s found a couple of part-time jobs to help her get by and volunteers for handful of local organizations, but hasn’t been able to find a full-time job despite her varied work experience.

But rather than let the pile of near misses bring her down, Yeager says, it’s motivated her to use her experiences to help others as they try to find work.

Last week Yeager held the first of what she hopes will become biweekly support group meetings for job hunters around the region.

“I was trying to do this all alone and it’s really hard to get up in the morning and go, ‘Ugh, I’ve got to do another set of cover letters,’ when you don’t feel great,” Yeager said. “I realized it’s really too hard to do it on your own.”

So when she heard last month that 27 of her former colleagues at SDE had been laid off, Yeager got to thinking about bringing together people from all over the region who had lost their jobs and could share tips and support.

Melding her conference planning experience with the job hunting know-how she’s gained, Yeager has arranged to have the new group meet at Peterborough’s River Center, a nonprofit organization that acts as local a hub for social service organizations, beginning April 24.

She’s made plans for a guest speaker to talk about the emotions connected to job loss. She’s also planned sessions on topics including how job seekers can structure their days, ways to save money and networking and resume and cover letter writing workshops to help group members.

“For a lot of people, being back out there on the job market is like being in a whole new world,” Yeager said. “I want this to be a good introduction to that world.”

‘The days are wide open’

Stephen Hooper, 60, is learning all about that world.

Hooper, who lives in Keene, lost his job last August when the shop where he worked as an electronics technician repairing medical imaging equipment closed.

He was out of work for a few months in 1988 and took on odd laboring jobs before finding full-time work, but says things are completely different now.

“I’d always gotten a job through personal networking,” Hooper said. “I’d ask around from people. Now, everything’s done on the Internet.”

“You show up at a business and they hand you a paper that says, ‘Check our Web site for openings.’ ”

He’s scoured the Internet nearly daily, searching for jobs, and earlier this month attended the Monadnock job fair in Keene — but says he’s baffled by the lack of work.

“I’m surprised at how little there is out there in general,” Hooper said. “People aren’t even replacing when someone leaves.”

Hooper has used his free time over the winter to do some projects around the house and says he’s looking forward to nicer weather — a chance to go canoeing.

He says he’s talked to some local outfitters about teaching canoe lessons or leading tours in hopes of making some extra cash while he waits for steady work.

“It’s been tough because the structure of your day no longer exists,” Hooper said. “With a job you get up, you go to work, you come home. Now, the days are wide open.”

Group helps him focus on the positives

Companion piece to “When shelter’s not enough”

Casey Farrar
Sentinel Staff

Published April 11, 2009

Daniel B. McClenning, 45, speaks unabashedly about a past marked by alcoholism and run-ins with the law.

He’s battled alcoholism for more than two decades.

His rap sheet includes convictions for reckless conduct with a deadly weapon, criminal mischief and drunken driving and he was recently released from Cheshire County jail after serving 8 months of a one-year sentence.

But McClenning, who is living at the Keene men’s homeless shelter while he works to get back on his feet, has plans to put that life behind him.

He says he hopes someday other people in similar situations can relate to his experiences and learn from them.

At the shelter, he says, he tries to take an active role in group support meetings and has even made suggestions for the format based on ideas he’s picked up at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

He attends nightly support meetings and has become active in a local church.

A former carpenter, McClenning is taking classes to earn his high school diploma and then hopes to get certified as an electrician through a vocational rehabilitation program.

His hope to be allowed to see his 2-year-old daughter someday soon helps drive him.

McClenning says he often thinks about the night in June 2007 when he shot a bullet into the ceiling of his Swanzey apartment.

He’d been drinking and decided he wanted to end his life, McClenning says.

When a friend came over to try to calm him down, the gun went off into the ceiling, McClenning says. His friend took the gun, left the apartment and, according to reports in The Sentinel following the incident, police said McClenning tried to spackle over the hole before they arrived.

Last October, he was convicted with reckless conduct with a deadly weapon and criminal mischief stemming from the incident and sentenced to a year in jail, with credit for 163 days he’d already served.

McClenning says he didn’t accept responsibility for his actions until six or seven months into his sentence, but if he hadn’t gone to jail he probably wouldn’t be alive.

“At the time, I thought everyone was against me,” McClenning said. “But then I realized there were so many people that helped me. My public defender Jan Peterson, my case worker at the jail, Barnes Peterson, (jail Superintendent Richard N.) Van Wickler, even the judge — who I thought was being mean — were all doing what was best for me.”

He also has high praise for the mental health professionals he meets with for family counseling.

McClenning will be on probation for the next three years he’ll be on probation and says he knows recovery won’t always be easy.

“I have to work every day,” McClenning says. “I don’t want to give advice to anyone, all I can say is what happened to me and if you can identify with it and take something from it, that’s good.”

When shelter’s not enough

Discussion group adds support for men in transition

Casey Farrar
Sentinel Staff

Published April 11, 2009

When Robert Smith’s mother passed away, he moved out of the house they shared in New York and bounced around to several family members’ homes before landing in Keene.

Struggling to deal with the pain and grief of his loss, and not wanting to burden his family, he moved into the men’s homeless shelter in Keene run by Southwestern Community Services, a nonprofit social services agency.

Smith says he has trouble expressing his feelings, but a new support group at the shelter has helped him open up and get to know the other 18 residents better.

“I’m not much of a talker anyway, but when I get started it’s hard to stop,” Smith said. “Seems like lately I’ve been doing nothing but talking.”

And agency officials say as they grapple with growing demand for emergency housing that has kept shelters in the Monadnock Region full to the brim, the group has helped create a calmer atmosphere in the house and led to fewer clashes between residents.

The meetings have been so successful that the program was expanded to the agency’s family shelter in February.

Jenna Leigh Lampron, emergency homeless services case manager for Southwestern Community Services, says when the group began at the men’s shelter last fall, it wasn’t an instant hit among the residents, but with time it’s helped bring them closer together.

“When we first brought it up they were like, ‘What?’ ” Lampron said. “They were very hesitant at first, but as they’ve gotten used to it they’re able to open up and support each other.”

The men meet one morning a week in the living room at the house. Just like divvying up household chores, the meetings are a condition of living at the house so everyone’s required to be there unless they have work or other obligations.

Sometimes Joseph Warner, an intern from MAPS Counseling Services who leads the meetings, kicks things off with a discussion topic, such as death and loss or family relationships.

But recently, meetings have centered around each man talking about he’s been doing that week mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually, says Warner, who plans to complete a master’s degree in family and relationship therapy at Antioch College New England later this spring.

“My focus has been trying to get them to work on themselves and work on their own circumstances,” Warner said. “I want the men to help themselves, to take better care of themselves.”

Craig Murphy, a Brattleboro native, has been living in the house since January. He says he liked the meetings from the start.

“It creates a camaraderie where we can support each other,” Murphy said. “Some people open right up and others take longer. I think the few that take that risk help the others feel like it’s okay to talk.”

The meetings offer an opportunity for the residents to talk through disagreements before they become a bigger problem, says Keith Vakauza, resident manager of the shelter.

“Sometimes we do try to iron things out in the group,” Vakauza said. “It’s better to have all the parties together at the same time and you can just talk things out in a neutral way.”

Vakauza, himself a former resident who moved into the shelter for several months after losing his job, says the meetings are also a way for the men to share tips as they search for jobs, apply for housing or try to recover from substance abuse or gambling habits.

Robert Doyle, who moved into the shelter last week, says the group has helped him get to know the other men more quickly that he might have otherwise.

“It’s helpful to get to know each other,” Doyle said. “We’re able to see a lot of people are in the same place mentally and emotionally.”

Doyle is on disability and finds it nearly impossible to stretch the $688 check he gets every month far enough. He says it’s easy for people to feel like they’re the only ones struggling with financial, emotional or substance abuse issues if they have no one to talk to.

“Here you meet other people in those situations,” Doyle said. “I never thought I’d be in this position. No one is here because they want to be.”

The number of people in the Monadnock Region facing similar situations is a growing concern among officials at Southwestern Community Services, who are struggling to deal with an influx of people in need of emergency housing.

A lack of affordable housing, months-long waiting lists for subsidized housing and rising unemployment and foreclosure rates have had agency officials scrambling to keep a roof over the heads of some of the region’s neediest residents, says Laurie Jewett-Saunders, director of homeless services for Southwestern Community Services.

“We are committed to finding a place for everyone, even if it means having someone sleep on a couch for a night,” Jewett-Saunders said.

Lampron says the shelters are meant to be a temporary transition place for people while they search for permanent housing, but more and more people are staying for longer periods of time — and they’re always full.

“We’ve had people staying here for longer and longer, which means less space overall,” Lampron said. “There’s hardly a day when we have an open spot.”

But, Lampron says, the meetings are a way for residents to talk about their frustrations and learn from each other while they work to get back on their feet.

“I couldn’t have been put with a better bunch of guys,” Smith said. “We’re here for each other.”

The Business Report: With or without

Pressure keeps building to keep health-insurance costs down

By Casey Farrar
Sentinel Staff
Published: Saturday, April 04
In an effort to keep health-insurance costs low, Stoddard-based Carlisle Wide Plank Floors has changed providers three times in as many years.

Employees at the Peterboro Basket Co. in Peterborough got a new health insurance provider at the beginning of the year.

And at VitriForms, a small Vermont-based custom glass components maker for the industrial and scientific fields that reimburses employees for individual insurance plans, workers have taken on higher deductibles or changed plans to save money.

With consumers more cautious than ever, belts are tightening in many aspects of business.

But, business owners and human resources executives say, health-insurance costs are one area they have to work hard just to keep from going up.

A study released this week by the University of California Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education found that since the start of the recession an estimated 3.7 million working-age adults in the country have lost coverage — most from job losses, but some from the inability to pay rising premiums.

John A. Round, vice president of administration at benefits specialist IPG Consultants and Brokers in Keene, said despite concerns about the ever-rising costs, many companies look at benefits as a way to remain competitive in recruiting and retention.

“Some companies make very purposeful decisions about where their plan fits compared to other employers,” Round said.

Round said the two most immediate ways for employers to curtail costs is to reduce benefits or increase the percentage of the premium that employees contribute.

Sara Fritz, director of human resources at Carlisle Floors, said employee contributions increased this year for the first time in three years, but their deductibles have remained the same.

“It’s been important to us to assess the needs of our employees,” Fritz said. “We’re a relatively young population, so we want to offer services to employees that fit them best.”

Fritz said this year the company, which has 120 employees in Stoddard and Swanzey and 40 more scattered throughout the country, switched to an insurance plan that places greater emphasis on — and offers monetary incentives for — wellness.

And despite rising costs, Fritz said she can’t foresee any circumstance that would cause the company to eliminate benefits for employees.

“Any type of benefit that an employer offers employees is expensive, but we try to look at it in a way that it’s almost more expensive not to offer it,” Fritz said.

Russell E. Dodds, president of Peterboro Basket, said he knew rates with the company’s former insurance provider were going to climb this year, so he changed to a new provider.

It has helped to keep premiums low, but the company still absorbed a 2 percent increase to keep from passing it along to employees.

Dodds said seven of his 10 employees are enrolled in the company’s health insurance plan, and over the last several years, the deductibles for employee plans have been increasing to keep costs down.

Dodds said he’s heard of companies that have reduced or cancelled employee benefits to keep from eliminating positions, and while his company is weathering the economic downturn, it’s not something he’d rule out.

“I’m not going to pay thousands of dollars a month if it means we’ll have to close the doors,” Dodds said. “One’s temporary and one would be a far more permanent.”

Patrick Hurst, president and co-owner of Accura Technics, a Keene-based company that makes precision grinding machines, mainly for automotive-industry subcontractors, said increasing insurance costs are “quite an expense and a burden for us.”

“We have switched carriers in search of that incrementally better premium, but it seems like every time we do that, it might not always be as good a plan as before,” Hurst said. “We’re just not getting the same services per dollar.”

Hurst said he wonders if Accura’s six-person operation could combine with other small employers to create a self-funded plan to save money.

Self-funded insurance has been a good choice for the Savings Bank of Walpole, said President and CEO Gregg Tewksbury.

Every year, the company reviews options with insurance carriers, but has found self-insurance the best option for more than six years, Tewksbury said.

Of its 75 employees, about 50 are enrolled in the insurance plan, according to Tewksbury.

“We had a couple of very good years so that our overall costs in 2007 went down,” Tewksbury said. “We were able to pass those savings to employees through reductions in payment and last year our premiums went up only modestly.”

Self-insured companies use an outside administrator to handle claims, but when an employee visits a doctor the company is billed, rather than an insurance company.

At Savings Bank of Walpole, employees pay 20 percent of their health care costs and the company picks up the rest, Tewksbury said.

With talk of federal health care reform, local business owners say they’re hopeful relief is on the way for health costs.

But for now, they continue to search for ways to keep prices down.

“Increases and changing carriers is not something we want to do, but the reality is what it is,” said Fritz of Carlisle Floors. “So we do the best we can to meet our employees’ needs.”