The high cost of sin

Published 12:00 am Sunday, May 11, 2003

Al Huber likes to think he hates sin as much as the next guy. But, he adds, enough is enough.

The goateed, bespectacled Huber and his wife, Heather, own and operate the two Tobacco Shack of Alabama locations in Selma, as well as the one in Thomasville.

It’s a family-run business. There are 43 Tobacco Shacks in all, 11 of them in Alabama.

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It’s the old American success story of a family that seized an opportunity, worked hard and built a successful enterprise. But now Huber believes that success is being threatened.

It’s no news that the tobacco industry has taken its share of knocks in recent years. First came the gradual sin tax increases on liquor and tobacco from cash-strapped state and local governments.

Next came the restrictions on cigarette advertising.

Next came the steady onslaught of legislation designed to restrict when and where smokers are allowed to light up.

Montgomery, for example, considered a bill last year that would have banned all indoor cigarette smoking in public facilities after 9 p.m. &uot;It didn’t pass,&uot; Huber says. &uot;But it didn’t miss by much.&uot;

Then came the class-action lawsuit settlements that ran into literally billions of dollars.

Earlier this year, Selma raised its city tobacco tax.

Now, news that Alabama’s governor may ask the Legislature to raise the state tax on tobacco yet again has Huber asking where it’s all going to stop.

Sitting atop the counter of the Dallas Avenue location of Tobacco Shack of Alabama is a large chunk of concrete bearing the inscription &uot;Is This Yours?&uot;

Included is a phone number to call should the owner wish to retrieve his or her merchandise.

The inscription is Huber’s little joke. The concrete was tossed through the window of the Dallas Avenue store during one of the four break-ins he and his wife have suffered since opening for business back in January 2002.

The burglars, whoever they are, needed 20 pounds of concrete to get into Huber’s wallet. The City of Selma needed only a letter.

In January, Selma raised the city’s share of the tax placed on each pack of cigarettes from 12 cents to 16 cents. According to the letter that Huber received, the extra money is being earmarked for city schools.

With the latest increase, the tax collected on each pack of cigarettes sold within the city limits now totals 32.5 cents. Of that total, 16 cents goes to the city, one cent goes to the county and 15.5 cents goes to the state.

Huber knows that sin taxes make a tempting target when legislators start looking for ways to raise money. But regardless of how people feel about smoking, he says, they should be concerned whenever taxes and other government actions are directed against a particular industry.

Not everybody quits cold turkey, though. A few simply quit paying, which Huber believes accounts for the break-ins that have added to his cost of doing business. He likens the security measures he has been forced to take to those of a jewelry store.

A tobacco user himself, Huber wonders where all the higher taxes and the government restrictions will end.

And he wonders, too, that if the tobacco industry is finally hounded out of business by a cash-hungry government, just which industry will be targeted next time.