Probe: June 19, 2002

June 19, 2002

QUESTION: For three years, I have been buying American cigarettes at the duty-free store in Calexico. I walk across into Mexico and back into the United States. When I have had extra cash, I have bought and brought back to the U.S. 10 cartons.

We would declare the extra cigarettes and pay the duty.

My husband and I both smoke. We go to Mexico every two weeks. Last week, he was tired and didn't want to go so I went with a friend.

We each bought a double carton for $27.50. Crossing back to the U.S., we declared our cigarettes and were sent to secondary inspection. The secondary inspector said we could take only one carton to the U.S. and we could not pay duty on the extra cigarettes.

I said I had paid duty before and he said that wasn't true, that crossers had never been allowed to pay duty to bring extra cigarettes into the U.S.


They took 10 packs (a carton) from each of us. I asked him, "What about the snow birds?" He said, "They'll lose theirs, too."

What are the rules on bringing American cigarettes back into the U.S. What do we do now? — Nicotine Lost, Brawley

Learn to smoke Mexican cigarettes. The rules are more lax.

We agree with you. For several years border inspectors allowed people to buy several cartons of duty (and tax) free American cigarettes in Calexico, walk into Mexico and back into the U.S. with no argument.

Smokers benefited from a loophole in the law that smokers could import tobacco products with no distinction between American and Mexican products if they paid duty and "applicable" taxes.

Since inspectors didn't like to mess with computing the taxes or busting smokers, you usually could cross your extra smokes without paying.

We thought it was too good to be true and belatedly the U.S. government agreed and passed a new law, the Imported Cigarette Compliance Act of 2000, to plug the loophole.

Recently, U.S. Customs announced it will enforce the law that permits bringing back only one carton of tax exempt American cigarettes a month.

You can import Mexican cigarettes for your own use — and it's up to the border inspector to decide how many you might consume in a reasonable time. In San Ysidro, that's usually two or three cartons and up to 10 cartons in Calexico.

DON'T BELIEVE EVERYTHING YOU READ — Thank you for replying to my question on the Internet story about Plaster City. Having said that, I do take offense at being labeled, "gullible."

I never said I believed the story claiming three Plaster City employees stuck their fingers in a hole where a screw cut the digits off. I saw the story on the Darwin Awards site on the Internet and wanted to know if it was true. Evidently it was not, proving you can't believe everything you read on the Internet. — Not Gullible, Niland

You have to take everything you read with a grain of salt. Often, however, there is a grain of truth in a tall story. As an example, we give you the following:

CALL OKLAHOMA — About the U.S. Gypsum "Finger Mishap" story, look at the Southard, Okla. plant — 1952-1953. — Steady Reader, e-mail

We will look at that plant. We'll let you know how it turns out.

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