Geraldine Snow says she is not an outlaw or out to buck the system. She’s just looking to save money on her cigarette purchases.
“I drive right by convenience stores in Tennessee on the way to (Weber City) because I can get them cheaper over there. It’s my money, and I’ll spend it where I want,” said the Church Hill resident.
Many interstate cigarette purchasers have sounded off on timesnews.net since the Tennessee Department of Revenue’s decision to actively enforce the state’s cigarette tax by promising strong-arm methods to prevent what Commissioner Reagan Farr called contraband coming over the state line.
The law reads that two cartons or more purchased in a state other than Tennessee without a state-regulated tobacco stamp will result in that person being charged with a misdemeanor.
The purchase of 25 cartons or more can earn the person the more serious charge of a Class E felony, which can carry a one- to six-year prison sentence and a fine up to $3,000.
“Remember when you went into a store for alcohol and cigarettes. They bagged the alcohol and you carried the cigarettes. Now they bag the cigarettes and you carry the alcohol,” wrote John Davis.
“I go to Weber City every two weeks or so and purchase two cartons of cigarettes ... sometimes an additional carton for a relative. I’m going to continue my decades-long practice but now will be forced to throw one pack away or give it to someone at the store,” says a post from Richard Noe.
The Tennessee Department of Revenue’s Special Investigation Section has reportedly sent officers into neighboring states to observe the cigarette purchases of Tennessee residents.
Those agents, who are in unmarked Tennessee-plated vehicles, then radio ahead to other officers standing by across the state line, waiting for a possible search-and-seizure operation.
Farr stated that each case, which could see the person’s tobacco purchase and vehicle seized on site, will be handled on an individual basis by the investigating officer.
State Rep. Jason Mumpower told the Times-News that he was one of Nashville’s biggest opponents of the cigarette tax increase due to its instability in the collection process.
“I was one of the ones who sounded the alarm the loudest to Governor Bredesen that this would happen, that the cigarette tax is an unstable source of revenue, and for the governor to make education funding subject to cigarette tax revenues was just not a good idea,” Mumpower said.
Revenue figures show the 42 cent increase that pushed the tax to 62 cents per pack in Tennessee is supposed to deliver an estimated $195 million.
That hike also made the decision for consumers to go to neighboring states for a cost savings more enticing, but Mumpower says the facts of tobacco tax enforcement and dollars being driven over into Virginia are nothing new.
“(The Department of Revenue) contends they are going to clamp down on this because we’ve had two consecutive months of cigarette tax revenues being in the tank,” said Mumpower.
“I imagine once the first person gets arrested for this, that is when my office and others are going to start hearing a lot more about this. Illegal is illegal, and it shouldn’t be happening, but I think people are going to be going after the best deal no matter what they buy.
“What this is trying to target are people who are bringing cases of cigarettes and selling them at discount prices. That needs to be addressed. ... I just think that they are a little red-faced right now thinking that the cigarette tax was to be this wonderful source of revenue, and suddenly it is falling short.”
He also noted that it’s just not cigarettes that are coming back over into Tennessee once residents go to Virginia to shop.
“When these people are driven to drive across the state line and buy cigarettes, they’re probably purchasing gasoline, food and other goods or services,” said Mumpower.
“I think that anyone that voted for this increase in a year that we had a budget surplus increase already, particularly (those lawmakers) from communities like Kingsport, are really going to regret the day they voted for it because all they are doing are hurting business people in East Tennessee.”