Maryland smokers buying trouble just over the line

May 31, 1992|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Staff Writer

DELMAR -- David Snyder used to save a few bucks on a carton of cigarettes just by driving across the Maryland state line to a nearby Delaware tobacco store.

But that ended two weeks ago, he said, when he got pulled over here by an unmarked police car. And, faster than you can blow out a match, Mr. Snyder was handed a warning for illegally importing untaxed tobacco into Maryland.

In an effort to keep potential revenue from new taxes on Maryland tobacco sales from landing in Delaware cash registers, the Maryland comptroller's office has dusted off a little-known law prohibiting anyone from bringing into Maryland more than two packs of untaxed cigarettes.

To get the word out to smokers who live near the Maryland-Delaware line, the comptroller's Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Division agents have issued a number of warnings to Marylanders caught with Delaware cigarettes.

So far, no one has been charged with the tax violation, which carries a $75 fine and confiscation of all untaxed tobacco products.

Marvin Bond, the comptroller's public affairs director, said the warnings are meant to caution Marylanders about bringing BTC quantities of out-of-state cigarettes into Maryland.

"What we typically do in a situation like this," he said, "is use that tool for education."

Mr. Bond said a similar law against importing untaxed and less expensive liquor into the state is enforced periodically in the Maryland suburbs of Washington.

"Nothing is being done on the Shore that hasn't been done for years in the D.C. area," he added.

Nevertheless, the presence of the "revenooers" has raised eyebrows here.

"I think it's a little nit-picking," said Doug Niblett, mayor of the Maryland side of Delmar.

Mr. Niblett said he could understand the enforcement effort if people were buying large quantities of Delaware cigarettes and reselling them here. But most people who received the warnings, he said, had bought tobacco for their own consumption.

On the day he was stopped, Mr. Snyder said, he had just purchased a carton of smokes at the State Line Cigarette Outlet, store in a small shopping center on the Delaware side of this small town that straddles the state boundary.

Had he bought the same cigarettes in a Maryland store a few blocks away, he would have paid another $2 and change.

Mr. Snyder said the tax agents, who were parked on Maryland soil as they watched customers leave the cigarette store on the other side of the state line, probably saw him carry his unbagged purchase to his car and drive into Maryland.

Like many Eastern Shore residents, Mr. Snyder routinely crossed the Maryland border to shop in Delaware, where prices are often lower because the state has no sales tax. The trips meant even greater savings for Mr. Snyder and other Shore smokers who live near the state line when Maryland added another 20 cents a pack to its cigarette tax on May 1.

The tax jumped from 16 to 36 cents a pack and pushed name-brand cigarettes sold in Maryland to over $2. In Delaware, the same pack costs $1.75 in many stores.

More taxes -- part of a budget-balancing plan supported by Gov. William Donald Schaefer and the legislature -- go into effect tomorrow.

Not surprisingly, convenience stores on the Maryland side of the state line have reported dramatic decreases in tobacco sales. On the other side, sales have risen substantially.

For example, at the Royal Farm store in the Fenwick Island, Del., resort, most smokers buy their cigarettes a pack or two at a time. Before the Maryland tax increase, the store sold two or three full cartons of cigarettes a week, said manager Kelly Dobson. Since the new Maryland tax went into effect, the store has sold from nine to 15 cartons a week.

No doubt, some of the Royal Farm's new cigarette buyers used to be customers of the 7-Eleven store two blocks away -- in Maryland.

"Our cigarette sales are down," said assistant manager Darlene Smyser.

At the Cheers store on Delmar's Maryland side, manager Frank Hobbs said new taxes on cigarettes, gasoline and newspapers have driven business to Delaware stores a block away.

But isn't he pleased that state tax agents are trying to steer tobacco sales back into his hands?

"I don't know," he said. "Here we're putting a 20-cent tax on a pack and we're spending it to catch people coming over the line. I don't see where we're getting anything from it."

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