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Kevin Castle • Sep 25, 2007 at 12:00 AM

Tennessee officials on Monday said the state’s surveillance of out-of-state tobacco stores is aimed at illegal contraband coming into Tennessee, not a crackdown on customer choice.

Tennessee Department of Revenue Commissioner Reagan Farr said surveillance will be focused on sites near state lines, such as the Weber City portion of Virginia near Lynn Garden, to snuff out those who bring 20 packs of smokes or more into the Volunteer State.

“We really want people to get educated on the law which we have to enforce. That includes the fact that bringing large amounts of cigarettes across state lines without a Tennessee tobacco stamp is illegal,” said Farr in a phone interview from his Nashville office.

The expansion of patrols by the Department of Revenue’s Special Investigation Section comes nearly three months after the tax on a pack of cigarettes in the state increased from 20 to 62 cents.

That hike made cigarettes more expensive in Tennessee than in bordering states like Kentucky and Virginia, where the tax is 30 cents per pack.

“Within recent history, it has not made monetary sense for consumers to cross state lines to bring unstamped product into Tennessee because the tobacco costs, cigarette costs, has been similar to the surrounding states,” Farr said.

“Now that there is a monetary difference, people may be inclined to want to go and purchase and bring unstamped tobacco product into the state. People should know what is allowed beforehand.”

Lawmakers in Nashville earmarked the money from the increase in cigarette tax to educational projects, enhancements in agriculture, and aiding trauma centers statewide.

The annual allocation from the tax is slated to reap Tennessee an estimated $195 million.

A person suspected of having more unstamped cigarettes than the law allows risks losing their cargo and their car, according to the investigation unit, which plans to have one agent staked out at bordering states’ tobacco shops to monitor people with Tennessee car tags.

A published report in The Tennessean states another agent just over the line in Tennessee will be notified and can pull the vehicle over for a legal search, and the automobile and cigarettes can be seized at the officer’s discretion.

Possession of 20 packs or two cartons of cigarettes without Tennessee tobacco revenue stamps is classified as a misdemeanor, according to the agency’s regulations.

Twenty-five cartons or more found in someone’s possession can lead to a Class E felony being lodged against the suspect, the law reads.

Farr emphasized that the customer who goes over into a neighboring state and buys a pack or one carton will not be scrutinized for breaking interstate contraband regulations.

“There is not a problem with bringing a pack of cigarettes without a Tennessee stamp over state lines. That is permissible,” said Farr.

“This is not intended to be a deterrent to those people buying cigarettes in some other place than Tennessee. This is targeted at larger scale purchasing that has led us to black market and Internet sales within our borders illegally.

“There are contraband cigarettes shipped into Tennessee all the time. We have agents who seize and destroy (illegal shipments) all the time.”

Addington Oil President and convenience store owner James Howard Addington said Monday that the amount of manpower and money being spent by Tennessee to monitor consumer cigarettes at Virginia stores such as his borders on hilarity.

“That’s about the silliest thing I’ve heard in awhile. I’m glad to see that the crime rate in Tennessee is going down now that they can dedicate officers to a chore like this,” he said.

“I know (those other businesses) at the state line get a heavier customer base from Tennessee because they are so close, and it decreases a little bit near my place in Weber City. But yes, we do have Tennessee traffic, and they buy cigarettes here.

“Are they going to have the state police set up at Kentucky and North Carolina, too? How dumb can we be? You knew when (Tennessee passed the tax increase on cigarettes) that this was going to happen. They want a better price. This is kind of ridiculous for grown adults to monitor this.”

Farr explained that tobacco ranks high among state-regulated products, and laws attached to those goods must be enforced.

“It’s right up there with alcohol and prescription drugs and with any regulated products that have rules that consumers must follow,” he said.

“You can’t go buy a bunch of prescriptions in Mexico and bring them into the U.S. and say ‘I can spend my money wherever I want.’ The Department of Revenue doesn’t make the rules on these types of products; they enforce them.

“This is an education process because we don’t want to catch unsuspecting consumers who are just not aware of the law and innocently bring in three or four cartons into Tennessee. We don’t want to catch the unsuspecting consumer. We want the smugglers.”

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