Liquor Control Board agents, who make sure bars and taverns are following state law, this week take on the added responsibility of enforcing Washington’s tobacco tax laws.
Liquor control agents usually spend their working hours cracking down on underage drinking or encouraging bartenders to cut off customers who have had a few too many.
Starting Thursday, these agents also will be combating untaxed cigarette sales, which cost the state an estimated $60 million a year.
Agents already regulate sales of tobacco to minors. Now they will also try to stop the flow of untaxed cigarettes into Washington from tribal lands, transport ships and Canada.
Overseeing cigarettes sales had long been the state Department of Revenue’s responsibility, but the department has no police force. So this year the Legislature shifted the duties to the Liquor Control Board, which is hiring 20.5 additional staffers to do the job. The Legislature allocated $2.8 million to hire 14 additional agents and support staff.
Agents such as Ike Ikerd in Pierce County say they can use the help.
Ikerd spends two nights a week in the field, checking on the county’s bars and taverns. He says he and the other three agents assigned to Pierce County were busy before they were assigned to check on tobacco sales as well. Now they will have even less time to develop relationships with establishment owners.
“Because I do tobacco plus alcohol, I can’t visit establishments like I used to,” Ikerd said. “I can’t sit down with the owners and really talk to them, do what I call preventive visits.
“Now, I am in and out of a place as quick as possible because I have to check on so many other places.”
Agents often use undercover tactics to see how establishments operate. They may use hidden video cameras to keep records of customers who cause problems, or they may rely on minors who volunteer to buy alcohol or cigarettes.
If a minor makes a buy, the agents take the substance into custody as evidence and cite the establishment. Penalties for the misdemeanor offense range from a $250 fine to the cancellation of the bar’s license.
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