Senate chair wants anti-smoking provision out of postal bill

Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairwoman Susan Collins, R-Maine, wants to stub out a provision in the Postal Service overhaul bill that would ban the agency from delivering cigarettes purchased online by underage customers.

House Government Reform ranking member Henry Waxman, D-Calif., proposed earlier this month including the provision in the conference report, which also would crack down on Internet tobacco vendors who avoid paying state taxes on their online sales.

Collins said she is "sympathetic to the cause, but I don't think it belongs in this bill." She said she is cautious to add provisions to the overhaul bill that might make it more controversial, including the anti-smoking language, and that she would instead introduce a stand-alone measure.

Waxman, however, said he wanted to keep the underage smoking provision "on a vehicle that's moving."

Postal Service spokesman Gerry McKiernan said it would be difficult for the agency to police the issue since "we have to deliver anything anyone hands us that has the proper postage on it." Unlike private companies like UPS and FedEx, which no longer deliver packages containing cigarettes and tobacco products, "we can't open packages unless we have probable cause."

But Eric Lindblom, policy research manager for the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, said carefully crafted legislation allowing the Postal Service to search packages if they had "reasonable knowledge and not just absolute knowledge" would help.

The Waxman language also would target American Indian-run Internet sites that avoid paying state taxes on their tobacco sales. While Native Americans can sell cigarettes tax-free on reservations, sales made online are subject to state and federal taxes.

New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer has been leading an effort to require American Indians to pay the sales tax for online cigarette sales and has been critical of the Postal Service for delivering packages of cigarettes to private consumers.

Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Herb Kohl, D-Wis., introduced a bill in the 108th Congress that would have banned commercial shipping of tobacco products through the U.S. mail and would have required private shippers to verify that appropriate state taxes had been paid on tobacco shipments.

The bill passed the Senate by unanimous consent in 2003, and a companion bill from Rep. Mark Green, R-Wis., easily passed the Judiciary Committee but never made it to the House floor. A Kohl spokesman said the senator might introduce the measure again this session.

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