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ALBANY -- Convenience store owners are claiming early victory in New York one day into the state's ban on the sale of cigarettes through online vendors. Online tobacco retailers, however, aren't quite as giddy.
"It's taken away at least half of our customers," Chris John, owner of Cigs4free.com in Gowanda, N.Y., told the Middletown (N.Y.) Times Herald-Record.
John said that he explains to customers looking to buy cigarettes that his company can longer sell to state residents. He also urges smokers to oppose the ban and sends them information on how to contact local politicians. "We are counting on our customers who are smokers to make our voice heard."
The law banning such sales has been tossed around the lower courts for the past three years, but has yet to be enforced.
"We have to take down these Web sites that are clearly breaking the law," said Assemblyman Jeff Klein, (D-Bronx.) Klein and Assemblyman William Magee, (D-Nelson,) have pushed for the law in order to prevent minors from ordering online and to retrieve the tax revenue lost because of illicit cigarette trade.
Internet storeowners oppose the ban and intend on fighting the decision. "I think because of the state deficit is why there is this whole thing to increase the tax," said John, whose Web store is one of the several such shops based on an Indian reservation. Local convenience stores hope people will now buy their smokes down the street.
"Making Internet vendors play by the same rules in terms of collecting taxes and verifying the age of purchasers, as our member stores have to do, makes perfect sense," said James Calvin, president of New York Association of Convenience Stores.
Calvin said that convenience stores have lost between 30 percent and 60 percent of their cigarette sales over the past three years because of cigarette tax evasion. For convenience store owners, the benefit of the ban is two-fold, since customers looking to purchase a pack of cigarettes often come out with a brown bag filled with candy and soda. The difference to one's wallet is substantial: a carton of Virginia Slims at Cigs4free.com costs about $22; at the ShopRite convenience store in Monroe, N.Y. the price is $52.
How the ban will be enforced is not exactly clear. The state Department of Taxation and Finance would not disclose its exact means of enforcement. A spokesman said the department will be auditing Internet vendors, but will not be requesting customer lists. Violating the law is a misdemeanor.