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Wash. AG asked for opinion on roll-your-own cigarette tax

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A Washington State lawmaker is asking Attorney General Rob McKenna for an informal opinion on a bill that would tax cigarettes from roll-your-own machines.

State Sen. Pam Roach, an Auburn Republican, wants to know if the measure, which would tax the roll-your-own smokes the same as retail cigarettes, is considered a tax increase for residents.

According to The Bellingham Herald, Roach submitted her request to McKenna’s office Monday.

“Regardless of the merits of this tax increase (I voted against it), it is important that the Legislature be honest about the bills that it passes (they weren’t in this case) and follow the rules the voters require (the Legislature didn’t in this case),” she wrote in her email request, the newspaper reported.

“I am very concerned that this violation of I-1053 (I was one of the initiative’s co-sponsors) will only spur further I-1053 violations.”

Initiative 1053 was passed by state voters in 2010, requiring a two-thirds vote by lawmakers to raise taxes.

However, lawmakers passed the roll-your-own measure, House Bill 2565, with a simple majority of the Senate during a special session, held April 11.

Lt. Gov. Brad Owen said a supermajority was not necessary because the bill is not a new tax — simply an existing tax to a new technology, the Herald reported.

But owners of the roll-your-own shops argue that the tax will put them out of business.

“Who would roll smokes if you can buy them already packaged at the same price?” Chuck Bertrand, who owns Payless Smokes and another roll-your-own store in Fife, Wash., told The News Tribune earlier this month.

Roll-your-own cigarettes are becoming a hot topic among state attorneys general.

Last month, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced a federal lawsuit against Tobacco House C.C.W. Inc. for allegedly evading cigarette taxes by providing customers with materials and equipment for roll-your-own cigarettes.

In West Virginia last year, the state Department of Administration alerted Attorney General Darrell McGraw to what it called an “apparently new phenomena” of roll-your-own cigarette machines in tobacco stores in the state.

The department, in a letter to McGraw’s office dated June 24, 2011, said in these stores a customer can purchase bulk tobacco and rolling papers, and place them into a hand-cranked machine that takes the raw materials and turns them into cigarettes.

“Purchasing cigarettes in this manner allows the customer to circumvent state cigarette tax,” Administration Secretary Robert Ferguson wrote at the time.

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