Reflecting a national trend, roll-your-own tobacco shops have been opening up all over Southwest Florida.
More than half the cost of a pack of cigarettes is in taxes. By rolling their own, smokers can beat the tax man. And, the roll-your-own tobacco emporiums help make it easy.
At CTC Tobacco in Port Charlotte the rolling machines are busy all day. Smokers are able to buy the equivalent of carton of cigarettes for about $14. The cheapest generic cigarettes sold at Wal-Mart cost $46 a carton. Blake Vantrees opened CTC Tobacco earlier this year.
"It's tough economic times and lot of people who smoke tend to be working class or poorer and so the price of cigarettes is a big impact on them and it seemed a situation where people needed inexpensive cigarettes and it seemed like a good time to do it," he said.
But, government officials are taking notice.
The federal government sharply increased the tax on cigarette tobacco and pipe tobacco in 2009 to help pay for the expansion of the Children's Health Insurance Program. Both kinds of tobacco had been taxed at $1.09 a pound. The pipe tobacco tax jumped to nearly $3 and cigarette tobacco to almost $25.
Roll your own tobacco shops are selling their customers product labeled pipe tobacco – thus the lower price. So, what's the difference between pipe and cigarette tobacco?
Congressional liaison for the Alcohol, Tobacco, Tax and Trade Bureau Tom Hogue said the feds are looking for a way to clarify that.
"Our lab has been looking into that quite a bit we have not found at this point a single silver bullet test that will let us look at two products and say definitively that this is a pipe product and this is a roll your own product. It's very hard to draw a distinction," he said.
Hogue said the feds will continue to try to define a difference and implement the law.
Customers at roll-your-own shops don't pay state taxes either. But, that could soon change in New Hampshire where Assistant Attorney General David Rienzo argued before the state Supreme Court that roll-your-own shops are subject to provisions of the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement reached between the states and the tobacco industry in 1998.
"Among those obligations is that manufacturers who never joined the MSA have to pay into an escrow account a certain amount of money for every cigarette they manufacture in the state. We took the position that the tobacco shops that bought the machines and operate them constitute manufacturers," he said.
The New Hampshire Supreme Court agreed and the price of cigarettes produced in roll-your-own shops there could soon reflect that decision.
Meanwhile, a Federal Court in Ohio placed an injunction on enforcing a similar lower court decision there. The appeal resulting in the injunction was brought by RYO Machine Rental, which provides cigarette rolling machines to roll-your-own operations in many states. RYO's President Phil Accordino said the original decision was not fair.
"The judge agreed with us that these machines could hardly be deemed manufacturing machines – a manufacturing machine for Phillip Morris will produce 20,000 cigarettes a minute – it would take our machines two days to produce what their machine would produce in one minute," he said.
Accordino said a hearing on the appeal will be scheduled later this year. Officials in Florida declined to comment on the tax status of roll-your-own cigarettes in this state pending the decision in Ohio.
The official state alligator hunting season begins Monday at 5:00pm.
Nearly seven thousand permits have gone out to people who want to try their luck at hunting the reptile. More than one-point-three million alligators live in Florida. The Coordinator for the Alligator Management Program for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in Tallahassee, Harry Dutton, said the commission extended the hunt by four hours each day of the hunt.
“This is what was ultimately provided to the commission as a compromise to what was asked for by the hunting community which was to hunt alligators anytime during the established season to other constituencies that like to look at the resource and enjoy it and also enjoy the waterways that hunting occurs on to find a balance between all these different recreational uses.”
Dutton said alligators are thriving in Florida with more than one point three million of them currently in the state. Each permit issued allows each person to take two alligators.
Florida retailers are counting on brisk sales this weekend – driven by a tax free shopping holiday for clothes and school supplies.
Florida’s first tax free shopping holiday was in 1998. It was aimed at giving parents shopping for back to school items a break. But President of the Florida Retail Federation Rick McCallister says there’s also a ripple effect.
“ People are out there shopping, the family is together and they buy refrigerators and they buy other things that are on sale on special because they’re out in the store’s they see things and they buy them, and so historically the Florida department of revenue has not experienced a reduction in revenue they experience an increase,” he said.
The state dropped the sales tax holiday for two years but it returned in 2010. Depending on what county shoppers live in they can save 6 to 7-1/2 percent in sales tax. The exemption applies to most school supplies with a value up to $15 dollars and clothing costing up to $75 dollars. The holiday begins Friday and runs through Sunday.
Lee County’s recently formed Hoarding Task force has been working with local residents who find themselves and their homes overwhelmed by clutter. An estimated 12 to 30 thousand hoarders live in Lee County. In part two of our look at this growing and sometimes dangerous emotional disorder, WGCU’s Valarie Edwards introduces us to Chester, a hoarder who – with support from the task force-- is now on the road to recovery.
Southwest Florida will soon be training doctors in its local hospitals.
Lee Memorial Health System and Florida State University College of Medicine unveiled plans for a medical residency program in Fort Myers. It will be the first of its kind in Southwest Florida and the only one between Tampa and Miami.
The program will be for medical graduates who are specializing in family medicine.
The announcement comes at a time when the state and country are experiencing a shortage of physicians – especially in primary care.
Although more medical schools are starting up in Florida, there are not enough residency programs to keep these new doctors in the state. Florida ranks 43rd nationally in the number of medical residents trained.
Lee Memorial Health System President Jim Nathan says the aim of this program is to bring more physicians to the area.
“By being able to have a training program here, we will be able to not only develop physicians that are trained in our community, but hopefully will want to stay in our community,” said Nathan.
Medical school graduates must complete residency training in their chosen specialty before they can practice medicine independently.
The FSU-Lee Memorial Health System program plans to bring in six residents starting in July 2013.
Sarasota County Sheriff Tom Knight says a two-week effort to crack down on metal thefts and burglaries resulted in the arrest of 62 people, the recovery of 2 vehicles, 2 trailers and 21 hundred pounds of metals.
Such crimes are a huge problem in Sarasota County.
"Operation Meltdown" focused on two patterns: the theft of metals from air conditioners, light poles, and home siding that are taken to recyclers in exchange for cash; and daytime burglaries where suspects break into homes to steal jewelry and items to be sold to either pawn shops or gold buyers.
Knight blamed criminal's drug addictions rather than the economy. He intends to ask Sarasota County to pass an updated Second Hand Dealer ordinance to deter the situation.
Mote Marine Laboratory and the National Marine Fisheries Service ar relying on an underwater robot in Collier County as it looks for environmental conditions that might relate to a recent fish kill there.
The robot, nicknamed “Nemo,” is an autonomous underwater vehicle that can detect multiple species of algae and levels of dissolved oxygen.
Launched last Thursday, it will patrol for about a week along a pre-programmed course six to 20 miles offshore. It will continuously sample the water and send data to Mote scientists at the lab every two hours via satellite transmitter.
Water use restrictions will remain in South Florida for the foreseeable future. South Florida Water Management District officials said today/Friday that rainfall amounts in Lee and Collier Counties are above normal so far this summer season. But that’s not the case in some other parts of the 16 county water management district.
Water Resource Manager Pete Kwiatkowski said ground water levels haven’t rebounded from the prolonged drought that gripped the region.
“We were in quite a rainfall deficit district-wide that started last October and just started turning around in June when we started to get rainfall but we still have quite a deficit that we’re trying to overcome,” he said.
Meanwhile, officials urge residents to turn off home irrigation systems because there’s sufficient rainfall to keep lawns green. About 50 percent of regions potable water goes on lawns so turning off the sprinklers will hasten the recharge of groundwater levels.
The Lee County Hoarding Taskforce held its first public forum on Friday, on the campus of Florida Gulf Coast University.
The consortium of public and private agencies includes regional police and fire departments, animal control agents, therapists and professional organizers.
Hoarding is an inability to part with possessions, irrespective of their value. And despite common misperceptions, many hoarders are well educated.
Although women hoard at significantly higher rates than men, both are likely to have experienced a traumatic event that led to the hoarding. It’s a significant commonality among a host of others, according to taskforce member Dr. Belinda Bruster.
“Another one may be mental illness, such as depression, OCD … which is obsessive compulsive disorder. Those are common features that you might find in a hoarder. But once again, everyone is different,” says Bruster.
Experts believe recovery can be difficult for hoarders who find it hard to bounce back from the trauma.
“Women can sometimes get stuck in that traumatic event and not be able to move forward. Where men have a traumatic event and they’re able to move forward a little bit better,” says Bruster.
Although experts aren’t certain, it’s estimated between twelve and 30,000 hoarders live in Lee County.
More information is available by contacting the Lee County Department of Human Services at (239) 533-7936.