Smokers quitting, cite high fee

Published 12:00 am Monday, August 29, 2005

ST. PAUL (AP) &045; Faced with cigarettes prices around 75 cents per pack higher than a month ago, many Minnesota smokers are trying to call it quits.

Calls and visits to local quit-smoking hot lines and Web sites have jumped since the state imposed a new &uot;health impact fee&uot; on tobacco sales effective Aug. 1.

Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota says new enrollments in its stop-smoking program spiked 65 percent in the first two weeks of August, to 228 people.

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And calls to the help line run by the Minnesota Partnership for Action Against Tobacco more than doubled, to 221, compared with the first week of August 2004.

The Medica and HealthPartners health plans also report growing requests for help quitting.

&uot;It’s what we should have expected,&uot; said Dr. Marc Manley, tobacco reduction director for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota. &uot;But it’s nice to see it happen.&uot;

Raising the price of a pack is the most effective way to get smokers to quit, experts say. The experience of other states has shown that every 10 percent increase in price results in a 4 percent decline in smoking rates, Manley said.

The new fee is intended to pump $380 million into the state treasury over the next two years, but three major tobacco companies challenged its legality in a Ramsey County court filing Friday.

The companies argue that the fee, a key part of the budget deal that ended a partial government shutdown last month, violates the terms of a $6.1 billion settlement the tobacco industry reached with the state seven years ago.

The proposal by Gov. Tim Pawlenty added 75 cents on top of the state’s previous

48-cent-per-pack cigarette tax. The Republican, who ran on a pledge of no new taxes, insisted it was a fee rather than a tax increase, and that opened the door for the tobacco companies to challenge the fee under language in the 1998 settlement that released them from future liability for health care costs related to smoking.

Six days after the new fee took effect, Peter Jennings, the former ABC News anchor and a longtime smoker, died of lung cancer. Tobacco counselors who talk to smokers around the state say many cited Jennings’ death as an inspiration to quit.