×

Roll-your-own raising concerns

SEATTLE – Tom Maier smoked Winston cigarettes for 40 years.

Now in his 60s, he has decided to start rolling his own cigarettes at Cheap Smokes in White Center, near Seattle, to save money. He said he didn’t think he’d like the taste. But it “turns out I like these better.”

Maier sits on a stool catching his smokes in a plastic tub as they fly out of a slot at the bottom of the 600-pound maroon machine that hums and bangs like a beat-up washing machine.

He comes in once a week, adds loose tobacco to the top of the machine, adds 200 empty, filtered tubes and pushes a button. Eight minutes later, he has a carton of cigarettes at about half the cost he used to pay at a gas station.

“They’re smoother and have no additives,” Maier said. “Besides, the machine does it for me.”

Health officials are concerned that the cheap cigarettes make smoking more available to those who usually would not be able to afford it. And the federal government is questioning the legality of the shops by arguing they are manufacturers.

But health concerns and a federal court case aren’t keeping the customers away. More than 30 shops with roll-your-own machines have opened in the greater Seattle area in the last year, shop owner Joe Baba said.

Phil Accordino, president of RYO Machine Rental, said the Ohio company has 1,000 machines in 35 states.

“Retailers have been putting electric machines in their stores since the ‘90s for customers to use for a fee,” Accordino said. His company started making the machines, which cost $32,500, in 2008. “Our machine is still very, very slow. If we’ve replaced the horse and buggy, we’ve replaced it with a Model T, not a Ferrari.”

Roll-your-own shops made it to Washington when Baba was looking to buy a business in the spring of last year. He came across the machines online and decided to give it a shot. He opened Washington’s first roll-your-own store, Tobacco Joes, a year ago in Everett. He now has more than 400 repeat customers and two roll-your-own machines.

Clint Hedin, owner of Cheap Smokes, did his own research and saw Baba’s success. A nonsmoker, Hedin still saw the business potential. He’s the only employee right now, but he said he has seen a steady increase in business and wants to hire five employees eventually.

The tobacco and tubes for 200 smokes and machine rental costs about $34. In Washington, a store-bought pack of 20 cigarettes costs around $8 and a carton of 200 around $70.

The machine presses the tobacco into a round log. A rod pushes that log of tobacco into a paper tube. The smokes are the same length as cigarettes but a little wider.

Hedin said his average customer is a 42-year-old male. Baba said his customers are usually 40 or older and blue-collar workers.

“This service that is provided by this machine and the stores that own them is catering to current smokers,” Baba said. “I don’t know of any customers in my store after a full year that started smoking because of the machines.”

The state health department doesn’t see it that way. Tim Church, the department’s spokesman, says offering cigarettes at a cheaper price lets more people buy them. He said people with lower incomes and less education smoke nearly twice as much as the rest of the population in Washington.

“I’d always be concerned if anyone is seeing roll-your-own cigarettes as some sort of a good alternative,” Church said. “You might save a tiny bit of money along the line, but the cost to your health could be tremendous.”

And just because rolling cigarettes allows consumers to avoid the additives placed in pre-manufactured cigarettes, Church said, it doesn’t make them healthier.

“It’s like claiming this is a healthier kind of poison,” he said.

Roll-your-own shops aren’t just fighting health officials. They’re also locked in a federal-court case with the Department of Treasury. The department says the stores are manufacturers, making a profit by producing cigarettes. It’s arguing that the stores should be responsible for all cigarette taxes and for holding a manufacturing permit. That’s why store owners call their products “smokes,” not cigarettes, and publicize that the process is done completely by the customer.

Accordino sued the department to block its ability to enforce manufacturing laws on these businesses. A federal judge in Ohio issued an injunction. The Treasury filed for an appeal. For now, it’s a waiting game.

“An actual cigarette-manufacturing machine will make 20,000 cigarettes a minute,” he said. “Ours make 20 to 25 a minute. There’s no confusing the two.”

Baba agreed. “There is a business structure for brewing on premise,” Baba said. “Customers can make their own beer on premises just like they can make their own smokes on premises. You can’t punish smokers and reward drinkers.”

Mike Gowrylow, spokesman for the state Department of Revenue, said federal tax collection is affected by the stores, which may be a reason the government is challenging their existence.

Gowrylow said roll-your-own retailers buy pipe tobacco because the federal tax is about a tenth as much as it is for cigarette tobacco.

But state tax collection isn’t affected because the tax rate is the same on pipe tobacco and cigarette tobacco.

Washington’s smoking rate increased this year from 14.9 percent to 15.2 percent, which is approximately 780,000 adults. Before 2010, the rate consistently had been decreasing for seven years, according to the state health department’s website. The average legal smoker pays about $1,170 in state and local taxes annually, Gowrylow said.

“There’s nothing illegal going on,” Gowrylow said. “If people want to go to the trouble to roll their own cigarettes because it’ll be cheaper because of the lower federal tax, it’s not an issue for us.”

Baba just hopes the lower prices give smokers a break.

“With a product that’s addictive, people are forced to use the product even with increased taxes,” he said. “This allows smokers in Washington to spend the money on food, gas, tuition. The money still goes back in the economy.”