The battle over the cigarette tax fiasco is settling in to the usual Manichean patterns with the mayor's observation in yesterday's Daily News that, "Either your objective is to reduce smoking among our children, or it is to help those who sell cancer."
Now we're not surprised at the mayor's invidious juxtaposition since he once famously remarked, when questioned about his tax increase's impact on local bodegas, "It's a minor economic issue." Quite clearly it is no minor to all of the small store owners who have already lost over 60% of their cigarette sales because of the mayor's original confiscatory levy.
But, economics aside, there's a lot more here that needs to be looked at. The city's cigarette tax has created a huge black market in illegal tobacco sales, a vast smuggling enterprise that has led to death on the streets of New York. As the Times reported yesterday, the $8 a pack price will only further stimulate the brisk street corner business that you'll readily find on 125th Street, Fordham Road or Supthin Boulevard.
And the city's response to all of this illegal activity has been meager at best. Whatever task force that is in place is simply not keeping up with the criminal enterprise. Even worse, however, is that the root cause of the disparity, the failure of the state to enforce the tax law against Indian retailers creates an easily accessible source of supply for the smugglers.
This is the crux of the problem: the state legislature has passed a law mandating that Indian retailers charge taxes on tobacco and gasoline to their non-Indian customers. Governor Pataki, inexplicably, refuses to enforce the law and in doing so conjures up Jack Abromoff images. No one believes, as Tax Commissioner Andrew Eristoff remarked, that the reason behind the reticence is a "fear of Indian violence."
Absent a decent public policy rationale we're forced to attribute the worst motives to this failure. Certainly, a conservative law and order type like GP can't seriously believe that a concern for law breaking is a reason not to enforce a law. Adding to the conundrum is the fact that the State would reap approximately $800 million dollars if the tax was collected.
That is why we are gathering a coalition of groups to come to City Hall next week to protest the governor's continued nonfeasance as well as the mayor's willful disregard for small business and public safety. Make no mistake about it, if the mayor is really concerned with children's access to cigarettes he should join with us and insist that the Indian loophole needs to be closed before any new tax is enacted. Otherwise, unregulated street sales will continue to mushroom and the mayor's laudatory public health goals will, along with the bodegas' bottom line, simply go up in smoke.