Virginia State Crime Commission endorses licensing of cigarette retailers to fight trafficking



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RICHMOND, Virginia — Virginia lawmakers should license retailers to sell cigarettes to clamp down on smuggling from the state with the second-lowest tobacco tax in the nation, a commission recommended Tuesday.

The Virginia State Crime Commission voted 8-5 to endorse cigarette licensing and have the Alcoholic Beverage Control Department enforce it.

The panel also backed measures to improve the effectiveness of search-and-rescue efforts, which have received heightened attention following the disappearance and death of University of Virginia student Hannah Graham. It postponed until next year a decision on whether to make texting of sexually explicit photos by teenagers a misdemeanor.

Commission endorsements carry weight but do not guarantee legislative approval. The cigarette proposal likely faces long odds in a House of Delegates dominated by conservative Republicans averse to increased state regulation. GOP House members on the commission voted against the measure. Thirty-six other states require cigarette retailers to obtain a license.

The commission's staff recommended licensing retailers because tougher criminal penalties for tobacco smugglers have not been as effective as expected. The theory is that retailers will have more incentive to obey laws if they can lose their license to sell cigarettes.

"I don't think more regulation and additional cost is the way to fix this issue," said Republican Del. Manoli Loupassi of Richmond.

Bootleggers can buy inexpensive cigarettes in low-tax Virginia and sell them on the black market for a big profit in higher-tax states in the Northeast. Experts have told the commission that a single vanload can net a profit of $170,000.

Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, said the simple solution would be to increase Virginia's tobacco tax to bring it more in line with states to the north — but that idea would never fly in the anti-tax House.

Cigarette trafficking has been linked to organized crime, gangs and terrorism.

"Funds are going overseas and are going to hurt our men and women in uniform," said Republican Sen. Bryce Reeves of Fredericksburg, who supported the licensing proposal. "If somebody out there has a better idea, they better come with it quick."

Republican Del. Rob Bell of Albemarle County said he was concerned about the impact licensing fees could have on "mom and pop" operations among the state's approximately 4,600 convenience stores. An industry trade group, the Virginia Petroleum, Convenience and Grocery Association, opposes the measure.

With little discussion, the commission endorsed a package of search-and-rescue legislation and state budget amendments. The proposals include establishing search-and-rescue coordinator positions at the Virginia Department of Emergency Management and the Virginia State Police, increasing funding for equipment and developing model training standards for searchers.

Possible action on the "sexting" issue was postponed after some members said they wanted more information on the magnitude of the problem.

Currently, the only charge prosecutors can bring when teens transmit nude photos of themselves or others is felony distribution of child pornography. Commission members agree that charge, punishable by up to 30 years in prison and inclusion on the sex-offender registry, is excessive and are considering creating a new misdemeanor that would be more appropriate.

Opponents of the proposal, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, argue that teen sexting should not be a crime at all and is an issue best handled by parents and educators.

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