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Published July 26, 2013, 09:46 AM

In Minnesota border towns, smokers weigh options

ALBERT LEA, Minn. (AP) — Drive farther or pay more for cigarettes. That's the choice confronting smokers in border towns now that a higher cigarette tax has taken effect in Minnesota.

ALBERT LEA, Minn. (AP) — Drive farther or pay more for cigarettes. That's the choice confronting smokers in border towns now that a higher cigarette tax has taken effect in Minnesota.

Northern Iowa convenience shops are anecdotally reporting a slight uptick in sales since Minnesota boosted its per-pack tax by $1.60 on July 1, the Albert Lea Tribune reported this week.

When adopting the higher tax, Minnesota lawmakers said the aim was two-fold. They wanted to discourage smoking and hoped to raise more revenue. Including other changes to tobacco taxes, analysts projected the state would generate about $200 million more per year. Officials are conscious of sales that can bleed across borders due to tax disparities.

Iowa's tax on cigarettes is $1.36 per pack — less than half the $2.83 now charged in Minnesota. Among the state's other neighbors: Wisconsin charges $2.52, South Dakota's tax is $1.53 and North Dakota assesses only 44 cents.

At Fallgatter's Market in Northwood, in northern Iowa, a lead clerk said she's selling 20 to 25 more cartons per week.

"I've been having people come down and buy a carton or two," said Johnna Emond, lead daytime cashier at the store.

Jackie Villela, cashier at Don's Motor Mart in Lake Mills, Iowa, said traffic has picked up a bit, partly from Minnesota residents who work in Iowa but are making a concerted effort to buy their cigarettes before heading home.

"We expect quite a bit more business in the next month or so," Villela said.

A Minnesota law restricts residents from bringing more than one carton of cigarettes from another state.

Other cost-conscious smokers may be trying to quit. ClearWay Minnesota, a nonprofit that advocates smoking cessation, reports that in the first two weeks of the month, its website was visited 5,650 times — 289 percent higher than the same time period a year ago. And calls to its QuitPlan Services hotline are also way up, with 900 calls coming in over two weeks.

"Research from Minnesota and other states clearly shows that tobacco price increases are effective at helping smokers quit," said David Willoughby, chief executive officer of ClearWay Minnesota.

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