Roll-your-own cigarette operators’ plans go up in smoke

Have a seat, take a load off. Smoke ’em if you’ve got ’em.

But if you’ve got ’em, make sure they’re officially rolled and packaged in accordance with federal law and with the complete approval of Big Tobacco, or there will be hell to pay.

The recent news that our ever-vigilant Congress has seen fit to stamp out roll-your-own cigarette operators managed to last barely a 24-hour media cycle before drifting like smoke through an open window. Duly noted in the press, it was quickly discarded despite the fact it appeared to be an obvious sign that Big Tobacco continues to wield big clout in Washington.

If anyone is going to sell cancer-causing products to the masses, mister, it’s going to be left to the experts associated with America’s multibillion-dollar cigarette cartels.

That irony was largely lost in the news reports. Take a moment and consider all the professions, industries and products Congress has failed to properly regulate and police in recent years. From Wall Street bankers and the mortgage racket to coal mines and offshore oil drilling, Washington’s legislative machine has been caught staring at its shoes.

But rewrite definitions and regulations that put more than 1,000 roll-your-own machines out of business? No problem. Congress rides to the rescue.

In Las Vegas, where the roll-your-own phenomenon has been catching on in local smoke shops and bars, dozens of people lost employment and small-business owners appear to be stuck with $36,000 rolling machines and little hope of recovering their investment.

One smoke shop owner who bought a roller says, “The machine is pretty expensive. It takes a while to recover the original investment back.” He didn’t want his name used because he does business with Big Tobacco, and he fears being threatened by an attorney.

Montana Sen. Max Baucus has been the point man on the increased regulation of the RYO machines. Read nothing into the fact he receives campaign contributions from major tobacco companies.

While you’re at it, think nothing of the fact the halls of Congress have for decades been a paid subsidiary of Big Tobacco. In Nevada, the tobacco industry has a reputation for getting what it wants from the state Legislature even if it’s against the wishes of the people.

But even nonsmokers and devout tobacco prohibitionists have to agree that regulating the roll-your-own machine operators into extinction is asinine and overkill. Perhaps that’s why the provision, which redefined the machine owners as “manufacturers” with taxable products, was slipped into the voluminous $100 billion transportation bill that last week was signed by President Barack Obama.

In the smoking-friendly confines of Las Vegas, popularity of the roll-your-own machines was growing. In addition to the part-time jobs that were created, consumers could save as much as 50 percent on a carton of cigarettes, money the operators say stayed in the local economy.

“There’s one thing I’d like people to know, this put extra money in people’s pockets,” says one RYO operator. “People were spending 50 percent less on cigarettes, and that gave them extra money to spend on other things. It came back in terms of money that was spent in the state. I can’t say that for Big Tobacco. My best thought is their profit went to some Swiss bank account. It’s not being spent in the state the product is sold in.”

In a Monday afternoon conference call, RYO spokesman and Washington state tobacco distributor Joe Baba said, “We are cautiously optimistic overall about our chances” of obtaining an injunction, and a lawsuit is currently being drafted.

But at this point that has to feel like a long shot.

With litigation against Big Tobacco an expensive proposition for a collective of small-business owners, the odds are their RYO investments are going up in smoke.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Email him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith. Follow him on Twitter @jlnevadasmith.

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