ANNAPOLIS – The state would have to burn cigarettes it takes from smugglers and stop selling them back to tobacco companies under a bill in the General Assembly.
Selling contraband cigarettes is profitable but hypocritical, lawmakers and anti-tobacco lobbyists said at a hearing Wednesday.
“To require the sale of tobacco products while actively campaigning for people to stop using them is about as contradictory as you can get,” said Delegate Barbara Frush, D-Prince George’s, in a statement. Frush sponsored the bill with Delegate William A. Bronrott, D-Montgomery.
Tobacco smugglers buy cigarettes in low-tax states like Virginia, which charges 2.5 cents a pack, and sell them illegally in Maryland, where the tax is 66 cents a pack.
The law requires the comptroller to auction seized cigarettes to nonprofit groups, licensed wholesalers and tobacco manufacturers. The state makes between $350,000 and $500,000 a year since 1999 from those auctions, according to legislative analysts.
The state has confiscated 286,613 packs of cigarettes with a retail value of more than $1 million since July 2000, said Mike Golden, spokesman for the comptroller’s office. He said burning the cigarettes would be like burning money.
“It’s an empty, symbolic gesture,” he said. “Burning them doesn’t hurt the tobacco industry at all.”
Tobacco manufacturers claim they destroy the cigarettes, which grow stale while held as evidence in the basement of the Louis L. Goldstein Treasury Building.
But anti-tobacco groups and some lawmakers said the cigarettes could end up back on the street.
“Tobacco companies have demonstrated their ability to fail to tell the truth for decades,” Frush said. “There is little evidence that they have changed their ways.”
No tobacco company representatives spoke at the hearing.
The comptroller’s office is confident that manufacturers do destroy the cigarettes to keep stale product off the shelves, said Larry Tolliver, head of the comptroller’s tax enforcement division.
Delegate Paul H. Carlson, D-Montgomery, asked Carlson for evidence.
“All we have is what they tell us,” Tolliver said.
The twice-sold cigarettes could fall into the hands of children, said Delegate Jean B. Cryor, R-Montgomery.
“I frankly don’t think of young people as connoisseurs of tobacco,” she said. “I don’t think they’d be upset about buying a stale cigarette.”
The state has taken an anti-tobacco stance with heavy taxes and regulation, anti-tobacco education programs and measures that encourage tobacco farmers to switch to other crops, Frush said. To be consistent, the state should destroy the cigarettes as contraband, she said.
“Regardless of our financial condition we should never need money so badly that we need to market our principles on the auction block.”