Shut out of name-brand cigarettes, the onondaga nation will roll its own

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The Onondaga Nation has joined the growing number of Indian tribes making their own cigarettes.

The nation smokeshop in Nedrow has been giving away a free pack of «Eagles» cigarettes with the purchase of a carton of other brands.

Onondaga leader Sid Hill said the Onondaga have started rolling their own to avoid paying and collecting state taxes on national name brand cigarettes. They are following the lead of the Seneca, Mohawk and Oneida tribes, all of whom roll their own and avoid the state tax system entirely.

Hill said the Onondaga plan to start selling the cigarettes in a month or two.

«We’re still getting some feedback on them,» said nation leader and Tadodaho Sid Hill. «We’re still testing the flavors to see what (customers) like.»

New York charges a tax of $4.35 per pack, or $43.50 per carton. After decades of trying to get tribes to collect the taxes, the state last summer won a court case that upheld regulations requiring wholesalers to pay the tax upfront and then collect from the tribes.

The tribes refused to buy taxed cigarettes and stopped selling national brands. Marlboros, Camels and other national brands disappeared from Indian cigarette stories, replaced by sell Indian made brands such as Seneca and Niagara. Without the state taxes, the Native American cigarettes sell for about half the price of national brands.

The decades long attempt by the state to collect taxes on cigarettes sold on Indian land has led instead to a rapid expansion of tribes making and selling their own brands more cheaply. That frustrates one of the stated reasons for the tax to encourage people to quit.

«The proliferation of tribal untaxed cigarettes undercuts New York’s goal to decrease smoking rates,» said Michael Seilbach, a spokesman for the American Lung Association of the Northeast. The group supports high cigarette taxes as a way to get adults to quit and to keep kids from starting.

State officials have continued to insist, however, that even cigarettes made on reservations are subject to tax when sold to non Indians. Last year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration said state law subjects cigarettes without proper tax stamps to seizure.

«This administration is enforcing the law and we will continue to do so,» Cuomo spokesman Richard Azzopardi said Thursday.

However, it’s plain that the Onondaga smokeshop and its drive through window are constantly busy selling cigarettes to non Indians. Same is true with other tribes’ shops.

A state Department of Taxation and Finance on Thursday declined to discuss the state’s policy on cigarettes shipped from one Indian reservation to another.

«We’re studying all of the legal aspects of the issue and will continue to enforce when appropriate,» said department spokesman Cary Ziter.

Whatever the policy, the nations are clearly shipping cigarettes off Indian territory for eventual sale at the smokeshops of other nations. At the Onondaga smoke shop, for example, the best selling brand is Seneca.

Hill said the Onondagas have not applied for permits from the federal government require of tobacco manufacturers.

«We’re a sovereign nation,» he said.

The «Eagles» cigarettes are being manufactured in several flavors in a building across Route 11 from the smokeshop. Hill said five or six people are working there now, and that will increase to six to seven per shift. He said he did not know how many shifts the plant would have.

The Oneida nation in 2008 bought a cigarette plan in Western New York and later moved it to Oneida territory. Several manufacturers produce cigarettes on Seneca Indian Nation lands.

Contact Glenn Coin at gcoin or 470 3251.

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