Fast sell for tax-free cigarettes

CATTARAUGUS INDIAN RESERVATION - Smokers have been coming here in droves in recent days as they prepare for the possibility of the end of untaxed cigarettes.

seneca tobacco

With the state scheduled to begin collecting taxes Wednesday on cigarettes sold to non-Indians, the pace of sales spiked over the weekend, several tobacco retailers said Monday.

“We probably doubled what we normally do,” said Diane Anderson, owner of Heron’s Landing. “Even my gas was busier.”

New York State’s plan to start collecting a $4.35-a-pack sales tax on cigarettes sold to non-Indian customers may also lead some businesses to cut off sales of national-brand cigarettes, retailers said.

Coming off what he called “a busy weekend,” Dakota Snyder of Catt-Rez Enterprises said premium-brand cigarettes could be “priced out of the game” should the new tax collection enforcement go into effect. He said his business is considering cutting down on the number of non-Indian brands in stock.

“The demand’s going to leave when the price goes up,” said Snyder, the store’s general manager.

Last week, the Onondaga Nation of Indians announced that it likely would stop selling national-brand cigarettes, instead turning to Indian-made brands, the Syracuse Post-Standard reported.

The Oneida Nation also announced last week that it was closing its cigarette-manufacturing plant in Angola and moving operations to sovereign territory between Syracuse and Utica because of the state’s plans.

The tax-collection issue is being fought in the courts.

State Supreme Court Justice Donna M. Siwek on Monday lifted two injunctions previously issued by another judge that temporarily stopped the state Department of Taxation and Finance from enforcing the state tobacco tax law.

That sets the stage for a federal court hearing in Buffalo today in which the Seneca Nation and other tribes will ask U.S. District Judge Richard J. Arcara to issue a similar injunction delaying the implementation of the law.

Customers and businesspeople Monday both expressed concern about the possible effects of the state trying to collect the tax.

If the tax on non-Indian cigarettes goes into effect, Snyder, of Catt-Rez Enterprises, said reservation businesses may lose out on some customers who can buy premium brands closer to home at what would amount to the same price.

What the business still will have, he said, is the draw of cheaper gasoline.

“The customer support is really high,” he said.

About 70 percent of Catt-Rez Enterprises’ cigarette sales are of Indian brands, Snyder said.

“I get native brands because they’re cheaper,” said Charles Forney of Lackawanna, who picked up a couple of cartons at Catt-Rez, saying he wanted to stock up before Wednesday.

While some cigarette customers on the reservation said they’re concerned about prices going up, others who buy Indian brands are taking a wait-and-see approach.

“I haven’t hit the panic button,” Gail Pirinelli of West Seneca said as she left Native Pride on Monday afternoon.

Pirinelli used to buy a national brand but switched to one from the Indians to support the area cigarette producers.

Pirinelli said her support stems from her belief that Native Americans “got a raw deal in so many ways.”

“They’re our neighbors,” she said, “and they’re our friends.”

Sales at Heron’s Landing have picked up since the beginning of summer, and weekends have been “very busy,” said Anderson, the owner.

About 90 percent of the store’s cigarette sales are Indian brands. If the tax does go into effect, Anderson said, she likely will stop selling the premium brands and sell only Indian brands.

The Seneca Free Trade Association, which represents about 140 tobacco companies owned by members of the Seneca Nation, voted last week to boycott premium-brand cigarettes, said Anderson, who serves on the group’s board.

Customers have been asking a lot of questions, and Anderson said she’s unsure of what type of reaction might occur if the state ends up trying to enforce the tax.

“Going back to ’92 and ’97, who knows what’s going to happen?” she said. “We’ve never come this close. It’s going to take a toll, I’m sure.”

In 1992 and 1997, disputes similar to today’s resulted in clashes between police and Native Americans that turned violent.

Richard Brohman of Buffalo, who was buying a couple of cartons of cigarettes at Catt-Rez on Monday, said he sees violence as a possible outcome of the state trying to collect the tax.

Brohman said he buys cigarettes on the reservation and sells them to people who live in his apartment building. He said he will likely have to raise his prices if the tax goes into effect, noting that he currently makes about a dollar per pack.

Joe Glowicki, assistant manager at Native Pride, said business has noticeably picked up since last Thursday and was sustained through the weekend.

The store’s two top-selling brands are Seneca and Buffalo cigarettes, followed by a couple of the premium brands, non-menthol-newport and, he said.

No decision has yet been made on whether the store will stock premium brands if the tax goes into effect, he said.

Aaron Pasternak of Buffalo said he buys both Indian and non-Indian cigarettes on his trips to the reservation, and also plans to stock up before the tax gets added into the price.

If it does go into effect, Pasternak said, “I’ll definitely be smoking more of the Seneca brand.”

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