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ALBANY, N.Y. -- Western New York can boast a new No. 1 status: king of the tax evaders. A recently completed state study found that 71 percent of area smokers buy their cigarettes all or some of the time from outlets -- often Indian retailers -- that collect few or no taxes, reported the Buffalo News .
The figure dwarfs other regions of the state, notably New York City, where one-quarter of smokers regularly seek out cigarettes with little or no taxes. The report for the state Department of Health was done by a North Carolina consulting firm. It is the first study to compare regions of the state and their tax-free cigarette-buying ways, according to the report.
"It's a stunning figure," James S. Calvin, head of the New York Association of Convenience Stores, a trade group representing non-Indian convenience stores, said of the Western New York cigarette-buying trends.
"This information reinforces the magnitude of the tax-evasion epidemic surrounding cigarettes in New York State…in particular in Western New York, where it is most pronounced," Calvin told the Buffalo News .
Calvin's group has been trying to get the state to collect the taxes on sales of cigarettes from the reservation shops, according to the report. The availability of low-cost cigarettes makes it harder to get people to stop smoking, health groups say.
"There's a lot of tax evasion going on, particularly in Western New York, obviously because of the proximity of Indian reservations," Russell Sciandra, director of the Center for a Tobacco Free New York, told the Buffalo News . "And this is a big problem, because without this easy access to lower-priced cigarettes, there would be fewer people smoking."
Researchers found that if those smokers avoiding taxes had to pay full price for their cigarettes, more than 100,000 people statewide probably would stop smoking, Sciandra noted in the report.
But a Seneca Nation representative dismissed the study's findings.
"That's nonsense," Joseph F. Crangle, a Buffalo lawyer who is the tribe's counsel, said of the cigarette-buying habits the study found in the report. "I really challenge those statistics. If that be the case, there'd be traffic jams out there."
The new study defines Western New York as roughly the area west of the Finger Lakes region.
The state study follows a 2003 survey by Roswell Park Cancer Institute, which found that 51 percent of smokers in Erie County and 78 percent in Niagara County regularly buy cigarettes from Indian retailers, according to the Buffalo News .
In other findings, the study found equality between the sexes when it comes to women and men smokers who regularly buy tax-free cigarettes. It also found that the older a smoker, the more likely to avoid taxes; 47 percent of those older than 65 buy their cigarettes all or some of the time from tax-free sources, compared with 29 percent of smokers between the ages of 18 and 24.
White smokers are more likely than blacks to buy tax-free, as are smokers with college degrees, compared with smokers who never graduated from high school.
The study comes as New York resumes plans to try to collect taxes on Indian sales of cigarettes to non-Indians. The State Legislature, which previously passed tax-collection laws only to see them rebuffed by the Pataki administration, this year passed another new law requiring that the state tax department, beginning next March 1, collect the tobacco excise tax at the wholesale level, according to the report.
Seneca merchants say they are protected from the taxation attempt by treaty rights more than 200 years old. But non-Indian retailers say that the state is losing several hundred million dollars a year to Indian tobacco sales and that the U.S. Supreme Court has already given approval for New York to collect the taxes, reported the Buffalo News .
"We look forward to the dawn of that new era of tax fairness," Calvin said of the March 1 tax-collection deadline, according to the report.