An estimated 1,714 cartons of cigarettes are sold in King George County every day, and county officials would like to impose a tax on smokes so they can get a piece of the nicotine pie.
It’s “not just a money-grabber,” said Richard Granger of the King George Board of Supervisors. “We want to make sure our region is safe and we don’t have to worry about these kinds of criminals.”
There are several cigarette outlets in King George along U.S. 301 near the Maryland border, and having so many places that offer Marlboros and Mavericks, Newports and Camels impacts law enforcement, said Sheriff Steve Dempsey.
Cigarette outlets tend to have more break-ins than other markets or convenience stores, said Dempsey, whose department investigates four to six such robberies a year.
In addition, King George has been part of regional investigations of cigarette smuggling since the early 2000s. That’s when people buy cigarettes in Virginia, where the tax is 30 cents per pack, the second-lowest in the nation. Then, they truck them up North where they can cash in on the difference in cigarette taxes.
In New York City, the excise tax is $5.85 per pack.
Just over the Potomac River in Maryland, the tax is $2 per pack of cigarettes. Smokers who cross the Harry Nice Bridge from Maryland can save themselves some money, even after the $4.50 toll. People legally can buy up to 25 cartons of cigarettes in Virginia; more than that is considered a misdemeanor and intent to distribute.
While some may see the act of cigarette smuggling as yet another form of capitalism, past investigations have tied it to terrorists in the Middle East. One of 12 people arrested in a 2003 sting that involved New York tax authorities, Virginia officials and agents with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives had an eerie souvenir in his pocket.
The Yemeni native had a ticket to the World Trade Center, purchased the day before terrorists attacked on 9/11.
Another sting in 2008 involved $6.1 million in cigarette sales.
“All of them were Middle Easterners, and all the money was going across the ocean,” Dempsey told King George residents at a town-hall meeting in 2015.
That bothers Supervisor Ruby Brabo, considering that Naval Support Facility Dahlgren also is in the same vicinity as outlets offering low-price cigarettes.
“Think about terrorists running a big operation right outside the Navy’s premier research and development lab,” she said. “Safety is paramount.”
As in years past, the King George supervisors last week asked their legislators to lobby the General Assembly to grant counties the authority to impose taxes on cigarette sales. The notion “has been consistently killed by the General Assembly,” said Eric Gregory, King George’s attorney.
Some legislators cite a philosophical opposition to raising taxes, while other assembly-watchers credit the influence of the state’s tobacco industry.
Initially this year, the Virginia legislature had four bills that would have given counties the ability to tax cigarette sales. Two were killed in the first weeks of the session, but Gregory said a letter from King George officials could encourage their representatives “to hopefully push those bills over the finish line.”
Considering the impact to law enforcement, Supervisor Chairman Jeff Bueche said “King George is being exploited.” And the trafficking of cigarettes probably will only increase, as more vehicles use U.S. 301 as an alternative when work is being done on Interstate 95.
“For us not to have this [authority], I think, is just ridiculous,” Bueche said.
Some cities and towns in Virginia have the ability to tax cigarettes, but only two counties do: Fairfax and Arlington. Fairfax County is part of the Northern Virginia Cigarette Tax Board, which administers taxes for the 18 localities in its group, including Fredericksburg. Wholesalers can’t sell cigarettes into the participating jurisdictions unless they have a dual permit, from both the state and the Northern Virginia board.
Nationwide, more than 600 local jurisdictions have their own tax rates or fees on cigarettes, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. The taxes bring in about $440 million annually and help “reduce smoking rates, especially among youth, and decrease smoking-caused death, disease and costs,” according to a December report.
The local fees are in addition to state and federal taxes and range from 50 cents to $3 per pack of cigarettes.