Supreme Court to weigh online tobacco sales rift

Federal courts have dismissed a Maine state law that backers argue is vital to preventing kids from buying cigarettes online. The high court may decide whether to revive it.

Anne Broache Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Anne Broache
covers Capitol Hill goings-on and technology policy from Washington, D.C.
Anne Broache
2 min read

The legality of a Maine state law designed to prevent minors from buying cigarettes online is slated to get another look from the U.S. Supreme Court.

Right now, the 2003 law is on ice, after successful legal challenges from trade associations representing air and motor carriers in Vermont, Massachusetts and New Hampshire. But the high court agreed on Monday to accept a petition from Maine State Attorney General G. Steven Rowe to review the earlier decisions.

Federal district and appeals courts in recent years have largely agreed that the state law conflicts with a federal law known as the Federal Aviation Administration Authorization Act of 1994. It dictates that states may not enact laws "related to a price, route, or service of any motor carrier...with respect to the transportation of property."

Maine's law prohibits tobacco retailers from shipping their products directly to customers in the state unless they use carriers that deliver the package directly to the purchaser, require a signature from the purchaser, and check the recipient's ID if he or she is younger than 27 years old. Retailers face penalties if they use carriers that don't provide such services.

State officials, for their part, have insisted that the federal law is intended to preempt only economic-related laws, not those aimed at protecting the public welfare. Because Internet and telephone sales of tobacco have become a "serious problem," the appeals court's decision poses "far-reaching and devastating effects on the states' ability to exercise their historic health-related police powers," they wrote in their petition to the Supreme Court (PDF).

Besides, Maine has regulated the delivery of various substances, ranging from fireworks and explosives to liquor, drugs and handguns in the past, the petition said.

The Bush Administration had urged the Supreme Court in a brief not to accept the case, saying the appeals court was correct in finding that the federal law trumped Maine's state statute.