State sends a message, smoker gets $8,000 bill
Scott Adams figured he was saving about $20 per carton the past few years by ordering his cigarettes online and by phone from out-of-state...
Seattle Times Olympia bureau
OLYMPIA -- Scott Adams figured he was saving about $20 per carton the past few years by ordering his cigarettes online and by phone from out-of-state tobacco dealers.
Those savings are proving mighty costly now.
The state claims Adams owes nearly $8,000 in unpaid cigarette taxes and penalties. After hounding him for more than a year, the state last week began garnisheeing 25 percent of Adams' wages.
Adams says he blew off the numerous warnings and tax statements he received in the mail, figuring the state was just trying to intimidate him and didn't really have the authority to force him to pay.
"I'm both angry and maybe a little ashamed that I didn't talk to them," said Adams, 41, a pack-a-day-plus smoker who lives in Seattle. "But I didn't think they were going to push it this far for something as trivial as cigarette taxes. ... It's going to take me years to pay this off."
The state, however, says there's nothing trivial about unpaid cigarette taxes. As many as a quarter of all cigarettes smoked in Washington state are smuggled in from out of state or purchased tax-free online, by phone or by mail from vendors.
Contraband cigarettes cost the state an estimated $200 million a year in lost revenue.
Here's what the state says Scott Adams owes for each five-carton shipment of untaxed cigarettes he ordered online.
Cigarette taxes: $101.25
Sales tax: $15.70
Penalties and interest: $500.77
For the past three years, the state has aggressively pursued people who buy illegal tax-free cigarettes. During that time, the state has collected nearly $714,000 from about 4,500 people, although only a handful have had their wages garnisheed.
"Cigarette-tax evasion continues to be a major problem in Washington state," Department of Revenue spokesman Mike Gowrylow said. "We believe everyone should pay a fair share of taxes, and we have an obligation to pursue unpaid taxes."
The state tax on a pack of cigarettes is nearly $2.03, the third-highest rate in the nation. Most of that money is dedicated to education and health-care programs.
Citing the Jenkins Act, a 1955 federal law regulating interstate cigarette sales, Washington was among the first of several states that began pressuring out-of-state dealers to hand over lists of their customers. Washington filed lawsuits to force several dealers to comply.
Over the years, the state has received customer lists from more than two dozen out-of-state cigarette dealers -- but currently is getting names from just four vendors.
When the Department of Revenue initially gets the name of someone who has purchased cigarettes from an out-of-state dealer, it sends that person a letter explaining that he or she owes taxes and could face steep penalties on future purchases.
The state has mailed the letters to more than 13,000 people since 2004. Some people paid the taxes voluntarily.
If a person's name shows up a second time and he or she still hasn't paid the taxes, the department gets more aggressive. First, it starts sending regular "Cigarette Tax Assessment" forms listing all of the taxes, interest and penalties owed on the most recent month's worth of purchases.
If those notices are ignored, the department eventually goes to court for a warrant that enables the state to take more drastic measures, such as seizing assets or garnisheeing wages.
Gowrylow said the state has sought warrants in 31 cases. Most paid up at that point, and the state has gone after people's paychecks only about eight times.
While the taxes can add up fast for someone buying cigarettes from out of state, it's the $10 per pack -- or $100 per carton -- "possession penalty" that really hurts.
Each month during the past year, Adams typically ordered five cartons of More Red 120s and other generic-brand cigarettes from OrderSmokesDirect.com, a Seneca Indian-owned vendor in New York state. And each month he got an assessment from the state: cigarette tax, $101.25; sales tax, $15.70; penalties and interest, $500.77.
Adams never responded. So in December, an agent from the Revenue Department left a business card on his apartment door with a note to "please call."
He didn't. A little more than a month later, he was notified by the medical lab where he works that his wages were being garnisheed.
Few people have racked up bills as large as the $8,000 that Adams owes, though the state says one person owes $11,300.
The state is not allowed to disclose personal taxpayer information. Adams contacted The Seattle Times because he felt his case would serve as a warning to other people who order cigarettes through the mail.
"You can't fight the government," he said.
Adams, a self-described "smoking activist," says the state's dogged pursuit of people such as him is yet another example of how society and government are persecuting smokers.
He speculated that most of the smokers the state is chasing for unpaid taxes are low- or middle-income people who were simply trying to get around an exorbitant tax.
Adams says he ignored the state's warning partly because he was convinced the state is misconstruing the federal Jenkins Act. And he thought Indian-owned vendors were exempt from state taxes.
Adams is also a little miffed at OrderSmokesDirect.com for turning over his name to the state.
He wasn't aware that the Seneca Tribe -- one of the nation's largest online cigarette vendors -- was one of the groups the state had sued. A federal judge in 2005 ordered the tribe's vendors to give the state its customer lists.
On its invoices, OrderSmokesDirect.com notifies customers that they are responsible for paying any local or state taxes. But there is no warning that purchases are being reported to the state.
The Department of Revenue's Web site has a form that people can use to pay cigarette taxes.
Adams said he considered hiring a lawyer but decided that would be expensive and futile. "I'm not going to fight it," he said.
Instead, he said, he's going to stop buying online. To save a little money, he's starting rolling his own cigarettes.
Earlier this week, Adams sent an e-mail to OrderSmokesDirect.com, canceling his latest order and telling about his wages being garnisheed.
In its reply the next day, the company said it had stopped his order and let Adams know he could resume ordering at any time.
"We apologize for any inconvenience this situation may have caused," the message read.
Ralph Thomas: 360-943-9882 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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