Massachusetts Retailers Win Reprieve

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Massachusetts Retailers Win Reprieve

BOSTON -- Smokers and retailers yesterday won a temporary reprieve from another major price increase on cigarettes, but a top state official said the delay probably won't last long.

Alan LeBovidge, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Revenue, said convenience stores have suggested that he has the discretion not to impose a regulation that would have the effect of boosting cigarette prices by 50 to 60 cents a pack, according to the Boston Globe.

LeBovidge said he has asked his legal department to clarify what his powers are. He said he would give the legislature additional time to address the issue, if so advised by the lawyers. Otherwise, LeBovidge said, the regulation would take effect Nov. 15. ''I would say it's more likely [prices will go up] than not,'' he said.

This is the second delay cigarette consumers and retailers have won. LeBovidge had planned to implement the regulation July 1, but aides to Acting Governor Jane Swift put the measure on hold until yesterday, when retailers cried for relief. The regulation would be adopted under the state's 57-year-old minimum-price law for cigarettes.

That law, according to Revenue Department officials, is being undermined by buydowns that cigarette manufacturers offer directly to retailers. The discounts had been small until a few years ago, when they grew to 50 to 60 cents a pack ? and attracted the attention of the Revenue Department. The proposed regulation would permit the discounts to be given only to cigarette wholesalers. Manufacturers, though, prefer retail discounts to help them get better shelf space and signs.

In a legal brief submitted to LeBovidge late last month, the New England Convenience Store Association argued that the elimination of buydowns plus the recent 75-cent-a-pack increase in the cigarette excise tax would devastate small retailers, who depend on the foot traffic generated by cigarette sales to turn a profit, the report said.

The association's brief argues the statute on which LeBovidge bases the proposed regulation is unclear and in need of legislative clarification. It urges LeBovidge not to implement the regulation until the Legislature addresses the issue.