Photos by Steve Shay
Burien resident Lisa Erickson "rolls her own" cigarettes, 200 in 8 minutes, from this machine at Natural Smokes LLC, also in Burien. Another is in White Center. Prices may nearly double in July. Then she may roll her own at home, one at a time.

Loophole to close on bargain roll-your-own cigarette machine vending

While many cigarette smokers will always buy their favorite brand by the box or carton at the convenience store no matter how high the price, some have recently switched to bargain do-it-yourself machines stationed in certain smoke shops to save big bucks. State tobacco taxes, 15 cents per cigarette, don't apply to those produced by these machines.

But if that's how you roll, you're soon out of luck as beginning in July, these cigarettes which now cost $36.50 a carton locally will almost double, with an additional $31 fee tacked on, as Olympia has nipped these machines in the bud for fear of losing revenue. Governor Gregoire is expected to sign the bill into law Wednesday, May 2. Legislators claim more than $12 million in increased revenue will come in the first year, slightly more annually after that.

A six-store chain in the Seattle area with these machines called Natural Smokes LLC has a location at 15500 1st Ave South, Suite 100, in Burien, and 9822 15th Ave SW in White Center. Its tobacco has limited use of preservatives, and draws a contrast to the major labels which contain nearly 600 chemicals.

The state's exclusive franchise is the Ohio-based RYO Filling Station, which refers to a large metal mechanical devise resembling a cross between a slot machine and a bank vault that emits hydraulic sucking and blowing sounds, and filtered cigarettes, 200 in eight minutes. There are nearly 70 such machines in Washington State.

Julie Anderson of Normandy Park manages the Burien store, which opened about three months ago. "Probably half who buy from us would drive out of state, go to the Indian reservation, or order online to not have to pay this tax," she said. "We will lose those customers."

Anderson, whose daughter, Paige, also works at the shop, said the Washington Ways & Means Committee will never collect that $12 million-plus in new annual revenue from the 70 stores in the state. "For one, fewer customers will walk in with the new taxes," she said. "I think they're dreaming."

"They are jeopardizing the life savings, the large investments, made by ma and pa's who have opened up the (roll-your-own) shops," said Joe Baba, owner, Tobacco Joe's in Woodinville. He is a retailer who also distributes the RYO Filling Stations statewide.

"These 65 to 70 smoke shops employ 250 people," he added. "Our industry is not here to encourage smoking, but it offers dedicated smokers already addicted to the product an opportunity to make their own product at a reduced cost. And with today's economy, that brings so much value to the underprivileged, the poor, those on government assistance. Either they're going to be rolling tobacco into cigarettes at home or they are going to go into the Indian smoke shops to get cheap smokes because they can't afford Marlboros.

"They are operating underneath the false assumption that by passing this bill it will bring this state all this additional income by forcing customers to gravitate back to Marlboros or, if they stay in our stores, they will be rolling their own smokes at a higher rate. I consider it phantom revenue."

While anti-smoking advocates in Olympia, including the governor, hope that, revenue aside, more people in Washington will kick the habit, they have made for strange bedfellows with lobbyists for big tobacco including R.J. Reynolds, which makes Camels, and convenience stores concerned smokers will walk a mile to get to a roll-your-own machine instead of paying $8 per pack from them.

Also controversial, this bill passed with a simple, not a supermajority which is required for any tax increase with I-1053.

"It's not really a new tax," countered Rep. Eileen Cody of the 34th District who represents West Seattle, Vashon Island, and parts of Burien. Cody has been a nurse with Group Health for over 30 years, currently in neurological rehabilitation, and serves as Chair of the House Health and Wellness Care Committee, and is about as anti-smoking as an advocate can get.

"We changed the definition of who a manufacturer is because these machines are something new and so what we did was clarify that these (machines) manufacture cigarettes and should have the same tax as on any other manufactured cigarette," she said. "They're argument his that their customers roll their own, but they are manufacturing their own, pumping out 200 cigarettes in eight minutes."

Regarding the $12 million figure with but 70 such shops, she said, "Our concern was looking at forecasts of how this would expand. The forecast was that over the next few years more and more would be appearing, growing rapidly.

"From our health care perspective we're doing everything we can to keep people from smoking and I'm not ashamed of it," Cody said defiantly. "You can quote me. Most smokers hate me anyway. The studies all show that with tax increases people will stop smoking. Does it stop everybody? No. But it certainly stops kids. I've had many people after they get done yelling at me tell me that they couldn't afford to smoke any more so they stopped."

Added Cody, "Most health care plans now cover smoking cessation. That would be my recommendation. Stop smoking."

.

We encourage our readers to comment. No registration is required. We ask that you keep your comments free of profanity and keep them civil. They are moderated and objectionable comments will be removed.