Like every other retail outlet that carries cigarettes in the state of Montana, Dorothy Clinkenbeard raised the price of cigarettes at Joe's Smoke Ring in Evaro on Thursday morning to reflect a state tax increase.
Except she did it twice: first, by the $5.20 a carton she thought the state's decision to raise cigarette taxes would increase prices; then again, after she read the Missoulian later Thursday and saw something about a "mandatory markup" of $6.05.
"I called the state and said, 'What is the price supposed to be?' " Clinkenbeard said. "I told them I'd raised it what I thought I was supposed to, then seen something else in the Missoulian. … Then they asked me how much I raised it. I said $5.20. They said, 'Well, that's wrong, it's $6.05.'
"Somebody in Helena ought to be shot over they way they've handled this," Clinkenbeard said. "This is the most ill-planned thing I've ever seen. They told me, 'Well, we mailed out letters yesterday at noon.' I'm in here at 5 a.m. changing prices - they think the letter got here that fast?"
"Complete shock and awe" was how Annette Hower, manager of the Holiday store on Brooks, described customers' reaction to the jump, which raised the state tax on a pack of cigarettes from 18 cents to 70 cents.
Just seven hours after Gov. Judy Martz signed the bill into law, retailers were scrambling to inventory cigarettes and other tobacco products and adjust prices.
Senate Bill 407 also raised the motel room tax from 4 percent to 7 percent and created a 4 percent tax on car rentals, but those don't go into effect until June 1 and July 1, respectively.
"It's goofy the way the state does the numbers" on the tobacco tax, said Jeff Lapka, manager of Ole's No. 2 on North Orange Street in Missoula. "The price has to go up more than the tax, because it treats the tax as part of the cost. It's going up more than what you think."
Around town, retailers heard the same refrain Thursday as prices of $4-plus per pack for major brands awaited consumers.
" 'I'm quitting.' " Lapka said. "I bet we heard that every two minutes."
"We had a lot of people walk out because they didn't have enough money for a pack," said Lezlie Reilley, assistant area manager for Noon's in Missoula. "It was quite a jump. Customers were not happy."
"We had some come in with their usual three bucks who left because they didn't have enough to buy smokes," Lapka said.
He added the tax increase seemed to affect cigarettes, cigars and pipe tobacco more than it did chewing tobacco, and wondered, "Are there more chewers than smokers in the Legislature? I can't figure out any other reason they'd protect chewers."
Other states that have increased cigarette taxes so dramatically have witnessed dramatic increases in contraband cigarettes.
That often occurs if taxes are significantly less in nearby states, but Neil Peterson of the state Deptartment of Revenue said that Wyoming recently raised its cigarette tax per pack from 12 cents to 60 cents, Idaho's is going from 28 cents to 70 cents, and North Dakota's is at 44 cents.
Smoke shops on Montana's Indian reservations have a limit to the number of non-taxed cigarettes they are allowed to sell, and only to tribal members, Peterson said. At Joe's Smoke Ring, for instance, people must present a tribal I.D. to have the tax waived.
But the Internet appears ripe for those willing to break the law to avoid high-priced cigarettes.
Internet sellers are required by law to register with the state and pay taxes on all cigarettes sold to Montana consumers, Peterson said.
But many don't.
"Some sites advertise quite boldly that they do not collect taxes," said Montana assistant attorney general Kelly O'Sullivan.
There are sites that advertise cartons of major brands in the $13 to $19 range, much less than the $40 it now costs in the typical Montana store.
It's a misdemeanor to sell a pack of cigarettes without a state stamp, and a misdemeanor to buy one, O'Sullivan said.
The state sends letters to Internet sellers advising them they are required to register with the state and charge the state tax, but there are literally thousands of sites that sell cigarettes. The Jenkins Act makes it a federal offense as well, but again, enforcing it is another matter.
Another option: Switching to cheaper brands that can cut the cost of a pack in half. Durant, for instance, cost $1.99 a pack at a typical store Thursday. The Brazilian product had been $1.49 before the tax increase.
And of course, there was always one other possibility. "Hopefully," said Clinkenbeard, "it will get a lot more people to stop smoking."
Reporter Vince Devlin can be reached at 523-5260 or at email@example.com