Anan Barbarawi expected cigarette sales at his store to drop once Minnesota's $1.60 a pack tax increase took hold in July. But Barbarawi, manager at Maplewood Tobacco, was shocked to see his numbers plunge "50 to 70 percent."
On the bright side, Barbarawi said, sales of electronic cigarettes have taken off.
A month into the tax increase, it's not clear yet how much cash Minnesota is collecting. The stiff tobacco levy, though, is changing behavior.
Programs that help people quit smoking say they've seen a dramatic increase in the number of Minnesotans contacting them for help because of the higher prices. Demand for tobacco alternatives is up.
State officials maintain that was always the goal when they pushed the total tax to $2.83 per pack. They say they'd be happy if they didn't get any tax revenue from tobacco and argue the state would save huge amounts of money on health care if Minnesotans didn't smoke.
There's no doubt cost led Bob Holmes to stop at the end of May -- a month before the cigarette tax increase took effect.
"Yeah, it might have helped push me into quitting smoking," said Holmes of St. Paul, who'd driven his friend to the Maplewood smoke shop to pick up some cheap cigars.
It's good the higher tax is getting people to stop smoking, he said. Still, he and many other smokers thinks it's not fair that many of those hardest hit by the tax can least afford it.
Tobacco tax figures from July on are not yet available, but anti-smoking advocates say the effects are visible already.
Calls to Minnesota's QUITPLAN program were up more than 250 percent over the same time last year and website hits were up almost 300 percent, for the first half of July, said Mike Sheldon, spokesman for ClearWay Minnesota, the group that runs QUITPLAN.
ClearWay offers free quit-smoking counseling using $202 million from Minnesota's 1998 legal settlement with tobacco companies. Summer is usually not a busy time, he said.
The group says about 625,000 adults in Minnesota smoke. About three of every 10 QUITPLAN clients abstain from tobacco for at least six months, Sheldon added.
The tobacco tax increase inspired Erik Nordstrom, 38, to look for options. The St. Paul man, a smoker since age 14, hopes to wean himself from nicotine with e-cigarettes. That's what brought him to the tobacco store in Maplewood.
Quitting tobacco is the ultimate goal, but there was an immediate need to cut spending. He was fed up with paying almost $300 for his monthly cigarette fix.
"When I go into a store and I'm paying $7.75 (for cigarettes), there's something seriously wrong with that picture," he said. "I had a pack of Newports on me which is the last pack I'll be smoking."