Sen. Collins Introduces Legislation To Stop Tobacco Shipments Through the Mail

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Senator Susan Collins introduced legislation on Aug. 3 to help crack down on illegal sales of tobacco to children by banning the shipment of cigarettes and other tobacco products through the U.S. mail.

Specifically, the bill would add cigarettes and smokeless tobacco to the U.S. Postal Service's list of restricted, non-mailable products. A first violation of mailing such a product would be liable for a civil penalty of up to $5,000 or 10 times the estimated retail value of the tobacco products, including all federal, state, and local taxes, whichever is highest. Civil penalties of up to $100,000 would be imposed for each subsequent violation.

The Senate went into recess on August 4.

This is not the first action taken against Internet sellers of cigarettes.

In January Philip Morris USA reached an agreement with a coalition of 37 Attorneys General aimed at combating the sale of the company's cigarettes over the Internet and through the mails. In addition, in March 2005, the Attorneys Generals also announced that the major credit card companies had all agreed to stop processing credit card payments for the Internet retailers. And, later in the year, both DHL and UPS agreed to stop shipping packages for the vendors engaged in these illegal sales.

The USPS has continued to ship cigarettes because under postal law packages are sealed against inspection unless there is probable cause, according to USPS spokesman Gerry McKiernan

In September 2005, the agency adopted a formal policy recognizing that it cannot knowingly permit mail to be used to further activities deemed unlawful by state and federal authorities. As a result, the agency currently makes it illegal to mail alcoholic beverages and guns.

However, the USPS policy authorizes postal employees to accept packages suspected of containing untaxed or under-taxed cigarettes because, there could be souvenirs in the package. However, "its pretty obvious if it's a gun, don't you think," asked Mr. McKiernan.

If enacted, McKiernan, "we will comply, but we hope guidance will be offered on how we can effectively enforce this legislation."

Sen. Collins said Internet sales of tobacco are growing, but effective safeguards against illegal sales to young people are virtually non- existent on the more than 400 websites selling tobacco, making it easier and cheaper for kids to buy cigarettes.

She added that the delivery of cigarettes and other tobacco products through the mail creates opportunities for tax evasion.

Collins said that 20 percent of cigarette-selling Websites do not say anything about sales to minors being prohibited and more than half require only that the buyer say they are of legal age. Another 15 percent require that the buyer type in their date of birth and only 7 percent require any drivers license  information.

Collins said Internet "stings" conducted by Attorneys General in at least 15 states found that children as young as 9-years-old are able to purchase cigarettes easily. Moreover, since Internet cigarette vendors typically require a two-carton minimum purchase, many high school and middle school buyers of Internet tobacco also end up serving as suppliers of cigarettes to other kids.

In March, Senator Charles E. Schumer, D-NY, and New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer announced that they had teamed up to support legislation to stop the shipment of cigarettes and smokeless tobacco through the U.S. Mail.
Schumer said his bill would prohibit mailing cigarettes through the USPS, impose fines of at least $1,000 per offense and jail time for repeat offenders, and give state Attorneys General the ability to pursue those who ship tobacco in violation of the law.

The bill has not yet been introduced.

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