Virginia’s General Assembly wants to make it harder for Virginians to smoke. But if you do partake, King George County would like a piece of the action.

The state Senate voted on Jan. 29 to keep Virginians under the age of 21 from legally buying cigarettes unless they’re active duty military. The House of Delegates gets a shot at the bill after crossover.

Whether it’s appropriate for the state to tell adults they can’t buy cigarettes is debatable, much as it is when the subject is alcohol. At least with booze, making 21 the cutoff has a public aspect that goes beyond second-hand smoke.

According to the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility, drunken-driving fatalities for people under 21 have dropped 80 percent nationally since 1982. Virginia raised the drinking age for beer and wine to 19 in 1983 and to 21 in 1985. Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act in 1984, raising the age to 21 nationally.

Getting lung cancer after years of smoking is a bit more gradual than a head-on collision and probably has less impact on one’s fellow citizens.

However, if smokers gotta smoke, King George wants them to pay for their indulgence.

An estimated 1,714 cartons a day are sold in King George, according to a recent Free Lance–Star article. Anyone crossing over the Nice Bridge on U.S. 301 into Virginia and King George County is immediately enticed by any number of businesses selling relatively cheap smokes.

Tobacco-friendly Virginia’s cigarette tax, the second-lowest in the country, is 30 cents a pack. In Maryland, it’s $2 a pack.

For a long time, it’s been a two-way deal, vice-wise. Virginians go north for cheap booze. (Maryland’s state spirits excise tax is $5 per gallon; Virginia’s is $19.93, third-highest in the country).

Meanwhile, Marylanders and those from points farther north cross the bridge for inexpensive tobacco products. Sometimes, they bring back enough for themselves and a few thousand of their friends. Cigarette smuggling has long been an enticement for organized crime.

King George officials are urging their state legislators to let the county impose a separate tax on those who cross the bridge for bargain smokes. Since the gap between the Virginia state tax and the Maryland tax is so large, it seems logical that the county could add a few cents to that 30-cent levy without greatly diminishing the southbound traffic.

There is a crime issue as well. Cigarette outlets have more break-ins than the average business, according to Sheriff Steve Dempsey, and smuggling as a career choice does not attract the most virtuous among us.

However, it’s likely that King George doesn’t likely want all of its tobacco customers to go away. That would put a crimp in retail sales along U.S. 301.

Either way, though, it seems that the county is right to ask for permission to tax cigarette sales. If it taxes too much, crime (and sales) apparently will go down. If it taxes just a little, though, King George will get a nice infusion of funds from its most prominent vice.

The General Assembly isn’t famous for approving more taxes for anything, or for letting localities have more say in their own affairs.

This time, we hope it makes an exception.

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