NY tribe pushes back on cigarette mailing ban

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A vote by Congress to keep cigarettes out of the mail was a “sucker punch” to treaty rights, the president of the New York tribe that dominates the now-threatened mail-order market said Wednesday.

The House passed the Prevent All Cigarette Trafficking — or PACT — Act with a 387-25 vote less than a week after the U.S. Senate approved it by unanimous consent. It now goes to President Barack Obama for his signature.

Supporters say it will make it harder for kids to light up and stop smokers from dodging state taxes. But Indian leaders see it as an attempt by the government to gain control over tribes and their economies.

“This is a sucker punch to our federal treaty rights,” Seneca Nation President Barry Snyder Sr. said. “This is a direct assault on our economy and our people. And it will have a devastating ripple effect on the Western New York economy.”

While numerous tribes sell tobacco products around the country, the Senecas have the most at stake, with dozens of Web sites offering cigarettes at discount prices unaffected by state’s $2.75-per-pack excise tax and 4 percent sales tax.

The post office has been the primary means of delivery since UPS, DHL and FedEx agreed with the New York Attorney General several years ago not to ship cigarettes nationwide.

The western New York tribe’s tobacco business accounts for about half of its $1.1 billion economy, said Snyder, who said tribes around the country and the National Congress of American Indians had rallied in support of the Senecas against the bill.

But in the end, lobbying efforts in Washington and at home — including a billboard along a New York highway warning the act threatened 1,000 Indian and non-Indian jobs in the state — changed few minds.

The result will be a reining in of cigarette sales by reservations, said Lance Morgan, a Winnebago Indian who runs a tribal corporation that buys and sells Native American goods.

“The businesses will become marginalized and very localized, and most reservations are in the middle of nowhere,” Morgan said. “It will go back to being a very small piece of what you do.”

More than 20 tribes had written to senators seeking a hearing on the effects of the bill, he said.

“There are plenty of tribes who are concerned about this,” he said.

Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., said New York alone loses as much as $1 billion a year from cigarette tax evasion. Weiner sponsored the measure with Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas.

The measure also will make it easier for states to sue out-of-state sellers in federal court and give the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives added authority to enter premises to investigate trafficking violations.