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Senecas irate as Obama signs cigarette mailing ban
End to use of Postal Service is described as crippling blow to tax-free businesses

WASHINGTON -- President Obama on Wednesday signed legislation that bans the U.S. Postal Service from shipping cigarettes -- a measure that's expected to cripple the mail-order tobacco businesses run by members of the Seneca Nation of Indians.

White House press secretary Robert L. Gibbs announced the signing in a brief statement that included no comment on the new law, which the Senecas fought furiously.

In response, Seneca Nation President Barry E. Snyder Sr. accused the president of betraying the very Indian nations he wooed during his 2008 campaign and spoke to last fall.

"The president of the United States invited Native American leaders to Washington, D.C., in November and looked us in the eye as a sign of good faith in his pledge to protect federal treaties," Snyder said. "Now, four months later, he has betrayed that promise."

However, opponents of smoking rejoiced in Obama's action.

"Enactment of this legislation is a milestone in the fight to keep kids from smoking and prevent tax evasion that costs taxpayers billions each year," said Matthew L. Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

In addition to banning the mailing of cigarettes, the Prevent All Cigarette Trafficking (PACT) Act requires those selling cigarettes on the Internet to:

*Pay all federal, state, local or tribal tobacco taxes and affix tax stamps before delivering any tobacco products to any customer.

*Register with the state where they are based and make periodic reports to state tax-collection officials.

*Check the age and ID of customers when they purchase tobacco and when the tobacco products are delivered.

The Seneca Nation has long contended that the bill would devastate the tax-free mail-order cigarette business that provided a bargain to a growing number of smokers while making some Senecas rich.

For months, the Senecas had said their cigarette industry employed 1,000 people, but in recent statements, the tribe -- without explanation -- boosted that figure to 3,000.

"We have at least 90 days from the signing before the postal delivery ban goes into effect, so we'll all be looking at ways to adapt and save as many jobs as possible," said J.C. Seneca, a tribal councillor and co-chairman of the Seneca Nation's Foreign Relations Committee.

Obama signed the bill less than two weeks after it passed the House by a 387-25 vote. Earlier in March, the Senate approved it unanimously.

The landslide votes and the president's signing show that the Senecas got nowhere in their attempt to pressure lawmakers -- particularly Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y. -- to change their minds on the issue.

The tribe singled out Gillibrand in a billboard campaign, but on Wednesday, Snyder focused his ire on Obama, saying the Crow Nation should revoke the honorary membership that it gave to him during his presidential campaign.

"This is certainly not the first time a U.S. president has failed to honor federal treaty rights, but it is particularly hurtful when this country's first minority president turns his back on another group of minority Americans; it's a very personal pain and insult," Snyder said.

Lawmakers from both parties have said in the last month, though, that the PACT Act was merely common-sense legislation aimed at curbing the sale of tax-free cigarettes.

The bill had a powerful and unlikely coalition behind it, as anti-smoking groups teamed with convenience store owners and tobacco giants such as Altria to push the measure.

The Senecas consistently portrayed the bill as a gift to Big Tobacco, but supporters of the bill said that it was simply a matter of public health.

"The PACT Act will cut off a major source of tax-evading, low-cost tobacco from coming into New York and other states," said Scott T. Santarella, President and chief executive officer of the American Lung Association in New York. "The passage of this bill is a true public health victory because higher tobacco prices will prevent more kids from beginning to smoke and encourage more people to quit."

The Senecas stressed, though, that despite Obama's action, they aren't quitters.

"This is devastating for the Seneca Nation, the businesses and all the employees, but it won't take us down," Seneca said.

"We've been pushed around by the government for centuries, and we keep finding ways to survive."

e-mail: jzremski@buffnews.com

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