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Proposed cigarette tax increases draw local ire

Customers of the Save Tobacco Super Store are not happy about proposed cigarette tax increases.

BEMIDJI —The counter at the Save Tobacco Super Store is an unlikely forum for political debate.

But these days, customers are talking —and often at length —about the state Legislature’s plan to increase taxes on cigarettes and other tobacco products.

“It sucks,” says one loyal shopper. A flyer hangs off of the register nearby, urging customers to contact legislators and oppose a tax increase.

All three legislative entities have proposed cigarette excise tax increases this year. The state House has proposed a $1.60 increase per pack, while the Senate and Gov. Mark Dayton both have proposed $.94 per pack hikes from its current $1.23 per pack rate.

Minnesota’s rate is below the average of $1.48, according to the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids. Minnesota last raised its tax in 2005, when it went up 75 cents.

The shop’s assistant manager, Tanya Little, often plays the moderator in the debate over taxes in the shop. She said all the tax is accomplishing is taxing the poor, and few people will actually quit smoking as a result of a higher price tag —including herself.

On the other hand, Delphine Bixby said a price hike would be the final straw after 40 years of smoking.

“I said, ‘As soon it gets to $6 I’m going to quit. And then I hung in there,” she said while holding a $7 pack of American Spirit organic cigarettes. “But now if it’s going to $8, forget about it.”

That’s the intent of the tax hike, lawmakers say. Dayton has said that the tax increase is more about preventing people from starting to smoke rather than increasing revenue, although it’s projected to raise $317,000 in 2014 under the House bill.

Despite her own plans to quit, Bixby said many will not. She, like Little, said the tax will hit the poor the hardest. According to a 2008 Gallup Poll, 13 percent of those surveyed making $90,000 or more per year said they smoke. The same could be said for 34 percent of those earning less than $12,000.

“They’re not going to give up that vice,” Bixby said. “They sit around worrying, they’re not going to sit around worrying without a cigarette.”

But proponents say higher taxes will make the next generation healthier.

Jodi Radke, the regional advocacy director for the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids based in Washington D.C., called taxes “the most effective way… to keep and deter youth from smoking.” According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 80 percent of adult smokers had their first cigarette before they turned 18.

“If we can keep kids from ever initiating (smoking) until after the point of 18, the number has dramatically decreased in terms of adults that will continue to use,” Radke said. 

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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