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    Building Bridges

    The industry should use its support of a new tobacco bill to develop positive relationships with lawmakers.

    By Mehgan Belanger

    It's a rare occurrence that legislation concerning tobacco is seen as a positive thing by the convenience store industry, but that's exactly the case for the Prevent All Cigarette Trafficking Act (PACT Act), a proposal aiming to restrict cigarette tax evasion through the remote sale of tobacco products, including the Internet and mail order.

    After a whirlwind beginning of this year, with an increase in the federal excise tax on tobacco, numerous state excise tax hike proposals, as well as the increasing threat of Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulation over the tobacco industry, retailers can breathe a (small) sigh of relief knowing this legislation could benefit convenience store retailers of tobacco.

    The PACT Act, introduced by Democratic Rep. Anthony Weiner of New York, and approved in late April, would make it a federal offense to sell cigarettes through the telephone, mail or Internet without abiding to state laws, and allows states to enforce the law against out-of-state sellers doing business in their state. However, it does exempt Native American retailers from the provisions.

    The proposal also mandates age and identity verification for buyers and recipients of Internet and other remote sales of tobacco. The PACT Act would also prohibit mail-order sales of cigarettes and smokeless tobacco products through the U.S. Postal Service.

    NACS -- the Association for Convenience and Petroleum Retailing, supports the measure, and is working to secure final passage of the legislation in Congress.

    "The PACT Act will help close the doorway to tax evasion that allows hundreds of Internet retailers to sell cigarettes 'tax free' and without appropriate age-verification checks," Lyle Beckwith, senior vice president of government relations for NACS, said in a statement when the bill was introduced.

    As this bill enters Congress, what better time than now to introduce yourself to local lawmakers and make your support of this bill known. If first meetings make lasting impressions, wouldn't it be best to start off on the right foot in a positive way by encouraging this bill and explaining the realities of convenience retailing, rather than the alternative: defensively lambasting or complaining about yet another tax increase on an already suffering retail environment?

    A level playing field with Internet retailers is something the convenience industry has desired for years. It would be foolish for retailers to not help that future become a reality by sitting on the sidelines. Just because the legislation showed promise in the past -- it passed the House overwhelmingly (379 to 12) in 2008 -- doesn't mean it will be passed without your assistance in 2009.

    Begin the conversation by explaining your position on the bill, and why you feel the way you do. Also, give lawmakers a sense of the weight your business holds with the community. A major tobacco company representative recently explained a good way to put into tangible terms your business' impact on the community. He said to explain the number of stores you have and the number of employees in each location. Then explain the impact such legislation would have on the total number of employees in the chain, and their families, not to mention your customers. This is a great way to show the scope tobacco legislation has -- it doesn't only impact smokers or tobacco consumers.

    By building a positive relationship with your legislators, you will be able to count on them in the future, so when another detrimental tobacco bill arises, your name and business will be remembered as an important part of the communities you serve.

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