Pennsylvanians who bought cigarettes online hit with liens for unpaid taxes

Gladys Kramer couldn’t believe the price of a carton of cigarettes advertised by an Indian reservation in New York.

“I’d have to have my head examined not to buy from them,” said Kramer, 82, of Butler Township.

A smoker since her teenage years, she jumped at the chance to buy cigarettes for $14.95 a carton, ordering 133 cartons between May 2006 and December 2008. A carton in Pennsylvania today sells for about $53.

Kramer was shocked last month to receive a notice from the Butler County Prothonotary’s Office saying the state entered a lien against her home of 20 years, to recover $4,583 in unpaid state cigarette taxes, fees and interest.

“This is getting me crazy,” said Kramer, who acknowledged her Brooklyn, N.Y., upbringing is fueling her desire to fight the action. She is looking for a lawyer to take her case.

“I’d fight for a nickel. I don’t give up easily,” she said.

The state began notifying thousands of Pennsylvanians in 2007 that they owe $1.35 in state taxes on each pack of cigarettes they bought from Indian reservations or online through other outlets. After initially trying to coax smokers into compliance, the state ramped up the effort last year and began filing liens against their properties.

“We understand that a lot of folks are just unaware … but it’s our duty to collect money owed the commonwealth. We can’t turn away,” said Elizabeth Brassell, spokeswomen for the Pennsylvania Department of Revenue.

Since April 2007, the Revenue Department has sent letters to more than 2,300 Allegheny County buyers of out of state cigarettes and 735 in Westmoreland County. Kramer is among 460 people living in Butler County who got letters.

The letters explain the cigarette tax law and buyers’ liabilities, and offer penalty abatement to those who promptly resolve their liabilities.

Pennsylvania filed 1,100 liens against smokers such as Kramer who bought more than $7.2 million worth of cigarettes since January 2008, Brassell said. The state has recovered $22.5 million since 2007.

Pennsylvania ranks 21st among states with its $1.35 per pack tax. Rhode Island leads the nation, charging $3.46 per pack in taxes, according to the Campaign for Tobacco free Kids. As part of his 2009 10 budget plan, Gov. Ed Rendell proposed raising the tax on cigarettes by 10 cents per pack and levying taxes on cigars and smokeless tobacco. Together, that would generate an estimated $99 million, Rendell spokesman Chuck Ardo said.

Kramer said she gave up her habit last week because she no longer could afford it. She said she didn’t know she owed the state tax because she paid the federal levy.

Pennsylvania’s tax “is a tax on a tax,” she said. Yet New York, where she grew up, places a $2.75 tax on each pack of cigarettes.

The two outlets where Kramer bought her cigarettes offered differing views on the Pennsylvania tax.

SmartSmoker said on its Web site that as part of the Seneca Nation of Indians and the Iroquois Confederacy, it is not required to collect state sales tax but is required under federal law to report all sales and shipments of cigarettes to each state’s tax administrator.

Big Joe’s Smokeshop said the law, the Jenkins Act of 1949, does not apply to Seneca Indian retailers because it violates 100 year old treaties between the United States and the Seneca People.

Cigarettes sold legally in Pennsylvania are marked with a Pennsylvania Cigarette Tax stamp. Possession of more than one carton of unmarked cigarettes can result in a $300 fine and imprisonment. Willful evasion of the state’s cigarette tax can lead to five years in prison and $15,000 in fines.

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