Irate and frustrated customers flocked into Smokes 4 Less Express on Friday, July 6, after news hit town at 4 p.m. that the shop had been ordered to close by midnight or be in violation of federal law.
A large number of buyers made a lengthy waiting list necessary at the shop, located at 2346 Grand Ave. This upset was due to “a job-killing tax loophole added to the highway bill … . A single paragraph added to the bill in a back door method raised taxes on small businesses while also protecting corporate interests,” according to the All-Voices online news and opinion site.
The only two Smokes 4 Less shops in Montana had been in business for less than a year. Billings had the largest and model store. Tiny Stevensville’s shop folded at the same time due to the federal order.
The massive bill was sponsored by U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., and co-sponsored by Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and James Inhofe, R-Okla. It included sections on flood insurance and student loans, and it tightened a “loophole” to require businesses with roll-your-own cigarette machines to pay the same taxes as big tobacco companies. The rider also reclassified the shops as cigarette manufacturers, not centers for do-it-yourselfers.
Present Obama signed the bill on Friday, and the shops shut down in less than 24 hours.
In a Washington press release, Baucus called the 596-page bill “Montana’s Highway Bill,” saying it would provide the state with 14,000 jobs in the transportation industry alone and resolve an impasse over student loan rates.
“Montana has more highway miles than any other state in the union,” he said. “This bill is very important to Montana. I am very pleased with it.”
Roll-your-own consumers weren’t focusing on riders to the federal Highway Bill on Friday. They had found Smokes 4 Less RYO Filling Station faster and more convenient than do-it-yourself homemade smokes — rolling 200 smokes in eight minutes, instead of half a day. Buyers custom blended using fresh pipe tobacco without added fillers or chemicals, such as strychnine, chlorine, carbon monoxide, formaldehyde and ammonia.
No paper containing aluminum was used. The shops made king size filtered smokes without accelerants so the cigarettes lasted longer than manufactured brands, and they cost half as much.
With the last-minute notification giving only eight hours until shutdown, the only advertising was a sign out front and word of mouth. General Manager Randy Sept, also known as “Rodeo Randy,” gave out handwritten slips of paper saying: “Smokes 4 Less Express Demolishing the High Cost of Cigarettes. Contact President Obama at www.whitehouse.gov, 202-456-1111, Section 100122.”
A sign on the door of the business now reads “CLOSED!!! Congress has shut us down — we are trying to reclassify our license.”
The wait on the last day ranged up to five hours. Sept stated that the biggest sale he made to one person was 20 boxes (cartons) with many sales of 10 boxes with a free 11th box. Sept said that by the time he shut down all three of the 800-pound rolling machines at midnight, he had sold 250 boxes. Some buyers came in crying, he said.
Numerous Native American customers had been coming from out of town, as far away as reservations at Hays, Hardin and Wolf Point. American Spirit, once a pure tobacco cigarette aimed at the Native American trade, had been taken over by R.J. Reynolds Co., according to Sept. Big tobacco added chemicals to the papers, and prices leaped to match other manufactured cigarettes.
“Native Americans came to get RYOs because it was a more natural product for their ceremonies and their own personal use,” he said.
Customers drove in from Columbus, Red Lodge, Bozeman, Belt, Kalispell and up the Eastern Montana interstate to Sidney and oilfield areas on the Montana-North Dakota border. Some customers claimed that chemical free RYOs were healthier than manufactured cigarettes.
Sept told about a woman in Billings unable to have back surgery due to her use of manufactured cigarettes and her poor lung condition. She went back to her doctor three months after switching to RYOs and had successful surgery.
Other tales dealt with allergies to chemicals in manufactured cigarettes and the disappearance of back pain within three weeks of using RYOs. Another customer reported hearing of instances of RYOs users no longer coughing or wheezing.
Claims were made that smoking RYOs’ pure tobacco made it easier to quit smoking completely since RYO’s contained no addictive ingredients.
A longtime smoker used to rolling her own at home to save money said, “These don’t flare up and the cherry doesn’t fall off and burn upholstery. It took forever to get a few packs done, and there wasn’t the convenience and consistency of the big machine.”
When asked if she ever considered quitting, this smoker said, “Not really. At least I have chosen to use a healthier product. I know about the state’s Quit Line and medications and want nothing to do with either.”
Brian Carpenter, a disabled miner from Columbus, drove 45 miles every month into Billings for his RYO cigarettes.
“I can’t afford prices for regular cigarettes sold at grocery and convenience stores,” he said. “RYOs were half the price of commercial cigs. The prices go up every time the government adds another tax … . A common person has few enough pleasures. I don’t want to quit! Smoking is one of the few pastimes I can enjoy any more. It is relaxing. Tobacco use has been around in the U.S. for more than 200 years. It was a primary crop in colonial times. Smoking by adults is a legal choice in our country.”
He added, “My lungs are in good condition, despite 35 years of smoking. With pure fresh tobacco, I don’t cough. My clothes and car don’t stink since there are no odors from added chemicals … . I don’t know what I will do now since the government closed RYO down. When the smoke all clears, the government is not trying to stop us from smoking. They just want to make more money for government spending … . Our own senator pushed this through under the radar. We are right back to taxation without representation.”
Supporters of the shops had argued that building RYO smokes was similar to grinding your own coffee at the grocery store. But the Highway Bill considered them as manufacturers of cigarettes.
In an article in the Wall Street Journal in April, Baucus was quoted as saying, “Roll-your-own cigarette machines take advantage of an unintended tax loophole, and that isn’t right.”
The Cleveland Plain Dealer estimated that about 5,000 people nationwide would lose their jobs because of the bill. Investors were left with repayment of $35,000 per machine. At least 1,000 machines were in use in more than 35 states, according to ryofillingstation.com.
In Montana, Robin’s Nest Floral at 3938 U.S. 93 N. in Stevensville had the first roll-your-own smoke shop in Montana, called the Packing Station. The shop, located in the same building as Robin Fite’s flower shop, had an 800-pound rolling machine that cost about $35,000 and now sits idle in a corner, covered by a sheet.
The shop was opened Aug. 17, 2011, by Charlie Fite and his business partner Jim Girard of Las Vegas. It was followed by Billings Smokes 4 Less Express on Oct. 31. The Billings shop had three rolling machines.
“Rodeo Randy” Sept, general manager of the Billings business, was one of six Montanans to lose their jobs when the bill was signed into law.
Rodeo Randy, a Brockway boy, graduated from Circle High School and moved to Las Vegas where he had a variety of jobs. His most recent job before managing Smokes 4 Less Express consisted of two years he spent hosting the KLAV rodeo radio show.
“It was the only rodeo show in the USA for an entire hour,” he said. “It streamed worldwide.” For a while he had his own website and e-mail at www.klav1230am.com/shows/RodeoRandy.html. The last show aired May 2011 when the contract was taken over by prorodeo.com.
“They took our show off and replaced it with a fishing show,” he said. In addition, he had the ESPNrodeo.com program online for six months.
In the midst of job changes, his parents’ funerals in Billings, and conversations with his friend, Mr. Girard, he decided to move back to Montana and run Girard’s new Smokes 4 Less Express in Billings.
In addition to Sept, Smokes 4 Less assistant manager Jim Menosky and sales assistant Joe Baughn lost jobs at the Billings shop. Charlie Fite laid off three employees in Stevensville.
Robin Fite said, “We were really paying the bills. We were selling smokes at half the price of the commercial brands and satisfying our small community. We can still sell cigars, loose tobacco and smoking accessories while we figure out what to do next. It will be very hard to pay our bills.”
Mr. Girard owned 25 shops in Nevada and the two in Montana, resulting in the loss of about 80 jobs. The manufacturing plant in Girard, Ohio, which opened in a depressed area due to automotive industry shutdowns, had to close. As for Rodeo Randy Sept, he is available if anyone needs a rodeo program guy. To reach him call (702) 517-2971.