Feds should regulate online tobacco sales
The U.S. Supreme court has struck down a Maine state law requiring shipping companies to verify the age of people receiving tobacco products purchased over the Internet.
Delivering cigarettes purchased online by juveniles has become easier because of a unanimous ruling this week by the U.S. Supreme Court. Federal legislation is needed to address the concerns and effectively make such transactions difficult if not impossible.
The high court struck down parts of a Maine state law barring Internet or other mail-order tobacco sales to minors that required delivery companies to intercept packages from unlicensed tobacco sellers and verify the age of buyers. More than 30 states have such laws, but federal law prohibits states from regulating prices, routes or services of shipping companies.
Hawaii's law prohibits selling or furnishing tobacco products to minors but does not specify measures to be required of delivery companies. "Despite the importance of the public health objective, we cannot agree" with Maine's requirements, Justice Stephen Breyer wrote. Permitting such requirements in Maine "could easily lead to a patchwork state service-determining laws, rules and regulations," he added.
In a concurring opinion, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg said the situation creates an urgent need for enactment of a "comprehensive federal law ... to prevent tobacco sellers from exploiting the underage market."
Indeed, sales of tobacco products over the Internet have risen significantly, and children have been found to place orders successfully 90 percent of the time. Many of the transactions are aimed at avoiding state taxes, and that is likely to keep growing.
Hawaii's tax on a pack of cigarettes rose to $1.80 in January and is scheduled to reach $2.20 in 2009. A federal law regulating carriers should include reporting requirements that would allow the state to impose the tax on incoming tobacco products.
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