The Cheapest Cigarette in Town

There’s a corner in downtown Seattle where cigarette prices are barked out by vendors, the cost determinate on where the smokes are coming from.

If they’re from a hard pack, one will run you 50 cents, the barkers say. If they’re roll-your-owns kept in a ziplock bag, you’re looking at a quarter a cigarette, or five for a dollar. That works out to $4 for a pack. It’s a steal.

There’s hardly anything clandestine about the operation, beyond the fact that it largely serves a population that Seattle would prefer stay out of view: the homeless or transient men and women who stalk around the neighborhood.

The cigarettes are “loosies” in the parlance of Manhattan, where $15 packs of cigarettes have created a thriving market outside methadone clinics and other marginal stretches of sidewalk.

When I started seeing Seattle had it’s own loosie market going, I made some calls to see whether it was a something either the state or local police were concerned about. I got resounding “no.” Bigger fish to fry, even in the arena of cigarette taxation, which is beguiled by smokes smuggled in by container ships.

“Our focus is on major tax evasion types of things,” Brian Smith with the Department of Revenue says. “Whenever our enforcement officers go to retail locations, that when we’d check for tax stamps. We also work with federal agents on trafficking types of issues. A person on the street isn’t in a licensed location.”

A Seattle police spokesman sounded equally un-bothered.

I was relieved to hear that. As I bought a couple of roll-your-owns the other day – regs, not menthol – the whole situation struck me as a public service of sorts: Most of my vendor’s customers look like they could use a smoke, but might have trouble coming up with the $8 it takes to buy a pack in a “licensed location.” The cigarettes, as far as I could tell, are up to par, if a little uneven in their burn. And at a quarter a piece, I doubt anyone’s getting rich.

Not that there’s not an opportunity there. In New York, one vendor, “Lonnie Loosie,” told the New York Times that his sales keep rising as taxes did. With Obama proposing another tax hike on cigarettes across the county, Seattleites may, too, develop a keener taste for 50 cent smokes.

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