Loleta smoke shop on tribal land sued for 'contraband cigarettes'

A tribal tobacco shop in Loleta has been ordered by the California Attorney General's Office to stop selling what it describes as illegal cigarettes and to cease distributing them beyond the boundaries of the Wiyot Table Bluff Reservation in Humboldt County.

What was originally an order in a letter dated nearly one year ago has transformed into a lawsuit against the Huber Enterprise Smoke Shop and owner Ardith Huber, alleging the shop has been selling contraband cigarettes since March 2007. The case is scheduled to be heard this week by a Humboldt County Superior Court judge.

The state said in the lawsuit that the smoke shop sells cigarette brands that aren't listed on the California Tobacco Directory and aren't certified as compliant with the California Cigarette Fire Safety and Fire Protection Act. The lawsuit said such brands include Seneca, Opal, Sky Dancer, Smokin' Joes and All Natural Native cigarettes.

Lynda Gledhill, spokeswoman for the Attorney General's Office, said one of the reasons the lawsuit was brought against the shop is that Huber has sold these cigarettes beyond the reservation's boundaries and to non-tribal members.

According to the lawsuit, Huber allowed non-Native Americans and other businesses to place orders by telephone for shipment. Customers were allegedly encouraged to buy these "cheap" and "tax-free" cigarettes on the shop's website, www.ndnsmokes.com, which no longer exists.

In addition, the lawsuit states Huber's choice not to charge taxes on the cigarettes is in violation of California's Unfair Competition Law, making the state lose an 87-cent tax on each package of 20 cigarettes and encouraging people to buy non-state-licensed cigarettes.

While tribal cigarettes aren't covered by the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement of 1998, which requires tobacco companies to pay states to help mitigate the costs of smoking-related public health expenses, Gledhill said that tribal cigarettes are still subject to state taxes. The letter sent to the smoke shop last year states, "Native American tribes and tribal retailers that sell cigarettes to non-Indians and non-members of the tribe are legally obligated to collect applicable state taxes."

Michael Robinson, Huber's attorney, said he didn't want to discuss the specifics of the case but said the next step is for the Humboldt County Superior Court to make a ruling on Nov. 10 as to whether the case can even be heard due to jurisdictional issues.

Robinson said the state doesn't have jurisdiction over Huber's smoke shop because it's part of a tribal reservation. He said he originally filed his response to the lawsuit in federal court, but it was remanded back to the state. Gledhill said Huber's smoke shop isn't the first Native American tobacco retail facility to be targeted by the Attorney General's Office for selling contraband cigarettes.

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