Congress on Wednesday sent President Obama a bill that bans the mailing of cigarettes, a measure that would bring the full weight of the federal government down on the Seneca Nation's huge tax-free tobacco trade that New York State has been fighting for years.
The House, in a 387-25 vote, sent Obama a measure the Senate had approved six days earlier. The president is expected to sign it shortly, and it would take effect 90 days later.
"This new law will give states and localities a major revenue boost by cracking down on the illegal sale of tobacco," said Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-Queens, the bill's chief sponsor. "Every day we delay is another day that New York loses significant amounts of tax revenue and kids have easy access to tobacco products sold over the Internet."
The Senecas said they would do whatever they could to prevent the law from devastating the nation's tobacco entrepreneurs and the 1,000 or more people who work for them.
"This attempt by Congress to return us to the days of want, squalor and dependency will not succeed," said J.C. Seneca, a successful tobacco entrepreneur and co-chairman of the tribe's Foreign Relations Committee. "We'll find ways to weather this economic storm and keep fighting for our future."
While warning of the economic dangers the bill poses to the tribe, Seneca also questioned whether it was workable -- and so did the U.S. Postal Service.
"Enforcement will be difficult," said Gerry McKiernan, a spokesman for the Postal Service.
Because of privacy laws, "Priority Mail is sealed from inspection. All first-class mail is sealed from inspection. I don't really know how it's going to work," McKiernan said.
Law enforcement agencies, of course, could get involved, McKiernan noted. But Jan Kemp, a spokesman for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said that agency does not comment on pending legislation.
If the mailing of cigarettes is halted, the financially struggling Postal Service could lose $30 million to $40 million a year in revenue, McKiernan added.
But that's nothing compared with the potential loss to the Senecas.
"This is a direct assault on our economy and our people," said Barry E. Snyder Sr., the tribe's president. "And it will have a devastating ripple effect on the Western New York economy."
That being the case, the tribe will continue its fight by pressing Obama to veto the bill -- a move that supporters of the bill said is highly unlikely.
"We are putting concerted pressure on the White House, trying to get meetings with them," Seneca said. "They have been unresponsive so far."
If Obama signs the bill into law as expected, the Senecas also could approach private shippers to see if they will resume shipping cigarettes. Federal Express, UPS and DHL, under pressure from New York State, all stopped shipping cigarettes years ago.
The Senecas have even discussed setting up their own shipping system, Seneca said.
"Whether that would be a viable option, we don't know," Seneca said.
One thing is for sure, however: The bill poses one of the greatest challenges yet to a business that has made several Senecas rich while costing New York State upwards of $500 million a year in lost tax revenue.
"We're finally going to be able to get control of this problem," Weiner said.
Then again, the Senecas have reacted strongly to state attempts to collect taxes on cigarettes sold on the tribe's reservations.
Most notably, in 1997, the Senecas burned enough tires to close part of the New York State Thruway to protest the state's tax-collection attempts. Senecas and their supporters ended up in a brawl on a section of the Thruway that ended with 12 state troopers injured and dozens of Senecas arrested.
Asked how Senecas could react to enactment of the new federal mailing ban, Seneca said: "Anything is possible. We want to avoid any situation that would put anyone in harm's way. It's unpredictable at this point."
The bill -- the Prevent All Cigarette Trafficking (PACT) Act -- also would require any online seller of cigarettes to collect all state taxes on the products and verify, both at the time of purchase and the time of delivery, the customer's age and ID.
Huge tobacco companies such as Altria and Lorillard, which have been losing business to the Seneca merchants, backed the bill, as did every major anti-smoking organization.
"The PACT Act offers Congress a unique opportunity to fight crime, protect federal and state tax revenues and promote public health, all at the same time," said Matthew L. Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
Seneca, Snyder and other tribal leaders spent Wednesday in Washington, hoping to engineer a last-minute miracle to stop a bill that passed the usually fractious Senate unanimously.
They found no support from Western New York's lawmakers and only 25 votes overall, primarily from the most conservative members of Congress.
Cancer advocates in New York State estimate that 100,000 New Yorkers will stop smoking if taxes can be collected on cigarettes, and countless more will never start, said Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo.
"The arguments are pretty compelling," Higgins said. "If you eliminate smoking, you eliminate a lot of cancer."
Rep. Chris Lee, R-Clarence, noted the bill had "overwhelming support," and for good reason.
"The Senecas just left my office; we had a very cordial conversation," Lee said. "I'm sympathetic -- but I'm also getting calls from parents in my district who are worried about the problem of selling cigarettes to teenagers online. That takes precedence."
Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, D-Fairport, was meeting with businesspeople from her district and thus missed the vote, her office said.
Snyder said he didn't understand how local lawmakers could favor the bill. "It is difficult to comprehend how our elected officials can vote for something that will kill more than 1,000 jobs," he said. "It's extremely disappointing."
Congress takes aim at Seneca cigarettes
The law sent to President Obama would:
• Ban the U.S. Postal Service from mailing cigarettes.
• Force online tobacco sellers to pay all federal, state, local or tribal tobacco taxes and affix tax stamps before delivering any tobacco products to any customer.
• Make such sellers register with the state where they are based and make periodic reports to state tax collection officials.
• Require that the age and ID of online cigarette customers be checked both when they purchase tobacco and when the tobacco products are delivered.