Smoking Foes Urge Tougher Online Tobacco Curbs
WASHINGTON (Reuters Health) - Anti-smoking activists refused Thursday to back a U.S. House bill designed to reign in sales of tax-free cigarettes over the Internet, calling the measure too soft on enforcement against the vendors.
The proposal aims to force Web site operators to begin paying excise taxes by making them report details of their sales to state governments where sales are made. It also gives state attorneys general the authority to sue vendors for the uncollected tax money in federal court.
Hundreds of Web sites offer consumers discounted cigarettes by skirting state excise taxes that often run over a dollar per pack. The sales could garner as much as 14 percent of the U.S. cigarette market by 2005, according to an estimate by Forrester Research.
The trend worries health officials who claim that children use the sites to easily buy tobacco without proof of age, and economists who say the sales are robbing states and localities of up to $4 billion in annual revenue.
"With nothing more than a credit or debit card, our children can access these sites, buy cigarettes and have those cigarettes delivered right to their door without anyone ever checking an ID to make sure they are old enough to buy them," said bill sponsor Rep. Mark Green, R-Wisc.
A General Accounting Office report issued last summer concluded that state law enforcement officials lack the legal authority to force online cigarette vendors to pay taxes since the sites are often located in other jurisdictions.
But anti-smoking activists argued that the new bill is not tough enough to discourage online sellers from avoiding taxes. Matthew Myers, president of the National Center for Tobacco-Free Kids, called the bill "well-intended" but said that it does not give states enough tools to enforce the law.
Myers pointed out that violations of federal laws governing interstate tobacco sales are currently classified as misdemeanors and carry only a maximum six-month jail term.
"The criminal penalties are not sufficient. They need to be more severe," Myers told members of a House Judiciary subcommittee. State attorneys general should have the authority to punish wayward cigarette vendors with felonies, he said.
Myers also urged lawmakers to craft a bill that applies to smokeless tobacco as well as cigarettes and also exacts civil fines for violators.
"What we're trying to do is pass a law that will have the intended effect," said Rep. Marty Meehan. Meehan said that he would soon introduce a stricter bill incorporating many of the tougher provisions.
A spokesman for Green said that the congressman is open to changing his bill in an effort to curb the activities of online cigarette vendors who don't pay taxes.
"We are willing to look at a wide variety of suggestions in order to move this thing through," the spokesman said.