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.
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.
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.
In Japan, officials are still dealing with radiation leaking from nuclear power plants damaged in the earthquake and tsunami earlier this year. FPL spokesman Mayco Villafana said earthquakes aren’t a factor in the Sunshine state and that their facilities are pretty much hurricane proof.
“These plants have taken an incredible array of processes and procedures to make them safe and secure. In the case of Turkey Point those power plants have already gone through category 5 hurricanes and have resurfaced without any kind of impact” he said.
FPL operates two nuclear power plants in Florida including Turkey Point, which withstood Category 5 Hurricane Andrew in August 1992.
FPL’s St. Lucie nuclear facility went through a number of hurricanes in 2004 and 2005, although none reached category 5. Progress Energy also operates a nuclear plant at Crystal River on the Gulf Coast.
Right now Tropical Storms Bret and Cindy are swirling around in the Atlantic – neither poses any threat to Florida.
The National Park Service and Florida’s largest electric utility are preparing for a land swap in Everglades National Park. Since its boundaries were expanded in 1989, the park service has been buying up privately held parcels.
One of the last parcels is a 7 ½-mile-long corridor owned by Florida Power and Light (FPL). The utility bought the land in the1960s with an eye for building future transmission lines. Now, the parcel sits in the middle of a flow-way that will be created when construction of a bridge replacing a portion of the Tamiami Trail in Western Miami Dade County is complete in 2013.
Everglades National Park Superintendent Dan Kimball said the bridge will allow water from the Northern Everglades to flow south, nurturing the River of Grass.
“We want to be in a situation where we can take full advantage of our major investment with the bridge so we can bring water into the park because right now we’re only getting on an average annual basis about 30 percent of the water, so the park is dying of the thirst,” he said.
Before the park can acquire the land from FPL, it must complete an Environmental Impact Statement and the comment period ends July 25. But, FPL Spokesman Mayco Villafano said the utility is anxious to move ahead with the land exchange.
“It will give us a parcel of land that’s going to be in the periphery side of the park so we can serve the electrical needs of a growing south Florida and the park at the same time will have the land that is inside the annexed area,” he said.
Park Superintendent Kimball said the FPL tract is one six remaining private parcels in the park, which also include three commercial airboat tour operations and two radio tower arrays. There are also plans to build more bridges to replace portions of the lower Tamiami Trail to increase water flow into the Everglades, but those plans are contingent on federal funding.
More than a hundred people gathered outside Pfc. Corey Kent’s parents’ home in Cape Coral Tuesday to raise an American flag in his honor and to break ground on a new addition he’ll soon call home.
The disabled young veteran thanked his community for chipping in to help him get on with his life after he was nearly killed.
“I’m not much of a public speaker but I just wanted everyone to know that I really appreciate all the support I’ve gotten,” he said. “I couldn’t have asked for a more supportive community.”
Kent graduated from Mariner High School in Cape Coral and then joined the Army and was sent to Afghanistan. A year ago, on July 12, he lost both his legs above the knee and part of one hand in an explosion. Since then, the 22-year-old has been recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., and learning how to walk on prosthetic legs.
“It’s kind of slow at first but once you get the basics it starts to speed up and you progress faster. I’m hoping that I’ll be able to run eventually but we’ll just see what happens,” he said.
Right now, Kent still spends most of his time in a wheelchair. And, odds are that chair will be with him for some time. So, members of the Cape Coral Construction Industry Association teamed up with the Southwest Florida-based, non-profit U.S. Forces Fund to help.
Todd Gates of Gates Construction is the lead contractor building a 500-square-foot addition valued at $70,000 onto the back of the family’s home.
“We’re trying to achieve some independence for Corey because obviously he’s a grown man needs his own independence but at the same time he’s going to be here with his family….It’s actually a self sustained apartment -- very, very comfortable,” he said.
Kent, along with his mother, Tiffany Ashby, leaves Aug. 7 for more rehabilitation at Walter Reed. Ashby said there’s a long road ahead – but if anyone can do it – her son can.
“There’s a lot of soldiers that are still up in D.C. and they’re going through the same thing and lot of families that are in the same predicament that we are and we just kind of lean each other, and help each other through it,” she said.
Kent will likely spend most of the next year at Walter Reed in rehab – learning to how to use his new legs. He says he’s looking forward to living in his new apartment when he gets home.
Preliminary fights for the Women’s National Golden Gloves boxing championship are underway in Punta Gorda this week. Fifty-five young women are competing to represent the United States in the 2012 Olympic Summer games in London. WGCU’s Valerie Alker has this look into the world of women’s amateur boxing.
The ACLU sued to end Florida’s so-called “Rocket Docket” but the Second District Court of Appeal declined to hear the case.
Lee County Clerk of Court Charlie Green, who helped come up with the process, said plaintiffs were treated fairly. READ MORE