The Free Press, Mankato, MN

July 25, 2013

Tax hike hasn't dissuaded smokers

By Mark Fischenich

---- — MANKATO — Officially, it's been 25 days since Minnesota smokers began facing the new reality — a $1.60 jump in the per pack tax on cigarettes.

The July 1 increase brings the total state tax to $2.83, enough to make Minnesota sixth highest in the nation and enough to push the price for most name brand smokes past $7 a pack. So far, though, most smokers aren't paying that price, said Jeff Enggren, owner of North Mankato's Lor Ray Deli Mart.

Enggren pulled down some Marlboros that had a prominent "$1 off" on the packaging and a pack of Camels with a bit smaller discount. Coupons seem to be arriving more regularly in the hands of smokers, too, so tobacco companies or wholesalers may be systematically attempting to lessen the shock factor of the growing cost of continuing the smoking habit.

"We've been getting a lot of sales," Enggren said. "The coupon marketing has been pretty heavy, too, especially in Minnesota."

One non-profit organization that provides free stop-smoking programs — ClearWay Minnesota — reported this week a fourfold jump in visits to its website and a more than doubling in calls to its helpline compared to July of 2012.

Mark Erickson, a pharmacist at the downtown Hy Vee store, said he wishes he could report a big jump in sales of nicotine gum, nicotine patches and other smoking cessation products since the tax hike arrived.

"I'd love it to be the case, just for the health of Americans," said Erickson.

But so far, not so.

"I don't think sales have changed much at all," Erickson said. "You'd anticipate a jump, but I haven't seen it yet."

As the discounts and sales on cigarettes fade away in coming weeks and months, that might change. Erickson wonders, though, if cost alone will deter many smokers.

"They'll probably just grumble more at the cashier," he said.

Enggren, too, is skeptical about the heightened tax changing the long-term behavior of smokers. He saw a big drop in sales in the first week of July but attributes that to people stocking up on pre-tax-hike smokes.

He's also seen more people trying cheaper brands of cigarettes and temporarily switching from one premium brand to another based on the $1 discount on the packaging. Others seem to be buying smaller quantities than usual, perhaps trying to cut down on the volume of their habit.

Enggren, who said he quit smoking about two years ago, doesn't expect the cut-back approach will last, saying it's just too easy to back-slide if someone continues to smoke occasionally.

But for people who were thinking hard about taking the cold-turkey plunge anyway, the tax hike might shove them off the cliff.

"When a guy's on the edge, that's enough to get them to say 'I quit, I'm not going to do it anymore,'" he said.

A quick look at his books and Enggren says there doesn't appear to have been a lot of cliff-dwellers among his customers.

"I'd say volume is the same or a little higher," Enggren said, although he cautioned that the sales numbers are distorted because gross sales include the higher tax. "I think it's going to take a little while to find out. ..."

Attempts to get comment from owners or managers at Mankato's tobacco shops were unsuccessful, although one customer said the tax change was altering his behavior.

"It's making me quit," he said, even as he paid for his purchase at Smoker's Choice. "I've got a (nicotine) patch on right now."