Wineka: More try making their own cigarettes

Published 12:00 am Thursday, April 14, 2011

SALISBURY — With the items he carried to the counter — the bag of pipe tobacco and boxes of cigarette tubes — Harold Mills paid about $30.
Mills figured he could make two cartons of cigarettes from his supplies. Using his cigarette-producing machine at home, which ejects cigarettes one by one, “I can make a carton in less than an hour-and-a-half,” he said.
Shane Allman, who helps his mother run the Tobacco Discount store on South Main Street, did some quick math for Mills.
Two cartons of Winston cigarettes would run Mills about $80 a week. Over a year, he would be spending $4,160 on the name brand. By making his own cigarettes, Mills is spending $2,600 a year.
He’s saving roughly $1,560 annually, Allman said.
Tobacco Discount and stores across Rowan County are becoming part of a quiet revolution among smokers who are tired of constantly being the target of higher prices, often fueled by increased taxes.
More and more smokers are making their own.
“We used to be a carton store,” Allman said. “Now we’re a roll-your-own store.”
The federal cigarette tax is $1.01 a pack. The average state excise tax on cigarettes is $1.45 a pack.
North Carolina has a state tax of 45 cents per pack, though a bill introduced in the 2011 General Assembly proposes a $1-per-pack increase to the national average.
Many smokers have had enough. While it’s cheaper in North Carolina (a tobacco state), a pack of cigarettes on average in the United States now costs $5.51.
The make-your-own smoker can produce his cigarettes for an average of $1 a pack.
Jack Phillips, who owns Jack’s Grocery on Bringle Ferry Road, has recently promoted “roll your own” tobacco products on his sign out front. He said it’s a growing business for his store, and a corner behind the counter is devoted to bags of pipe tobacco, cigarette tubes and cigarette-making machines.
“We got in late in the ball game,” Phillips said, remembering how customers kept asking for the cheaper-priced pipe tobacco to make their own cigarettes. “There’s a big, big market for it. It’s immense. I could not believe it.”
Jack’s sells 6- to 16-ounce bags of pipe and cigarette tobacco with brand names such as OHM, 4 Aces, Gambler, Bull Durham and Dark Horse. They come in “flavors” including mint, bold, regular, natural and mellow.
“Most of the time, the OHM gets wiped out,” a clerk said.
Prices for a 16-ounce bag of pipe tobacco, for example, range from $10.99 to $14.99.
The store also sells inexpensive cigarette tubes in boxes of 100, 200 and 250. And it offers six different cigarette-making machines, with prices ranging from $26.76 to $42.99.
The typical “roll-your-own” customer is actually using one of these machines at home. He fills a narrow compartment full of tobacco, and with a simple turn of a handle, injects the tobacco into a cigarette tube.
It’s a one-at-a-time process. Most of the tubes come with a filter.
Stores also sell plastic cases to hold the cigarettes people produce.
When Phillips first started offering the make-your-own items, his supplier wanted him to order at least $500 of product a week. Phillips worried he wouldn’t have enough business to warrant that big of an order.
Now he orders three times that amount.
Working-class people have to do what they can to save money, and if they smoke, Phillips said, churning out their own cigarettes makes sense.
“It really makes sense,” he stressed.
Teresa Hess, an employee at Jack’s Grocery, makes her own cigarettes for about $10 a carton. With her machine, she can manufacture about a pack-and-a-half in 15 minutes. She often produces her cigarettes while watching television.
Hess’ sister and brother-in-law are making their own cigarettes, and “I’ve talked other customers into doing it,” she said. “They’ve enjoyed it.”
Tammy Moose, owner of the Pine Ridge General Store on Stokes Ferry Road, also has a corner of her store set aside for the roll-your-own customer. She said a progression seems to occur in which smokers change from name brands to discount varieties to roll-your-own.
“People are coming in and asking for it,” she said. “This is what they’re doing now because the costs are so much higher.”
In the beginning, Moose ordered pipe and cigarette tobacco for her make-your-own customers by the bag. Now she orders it by the case.
Allman, of the Tobacco Discount store, said the pipe tobacco used by roll-your-own customers is in “a lower tax bracket” because for years it represented a declining market. Pipe tobacco is in the “L” classification, in which the tax is $2.70 per pound, Allman said.
Cigarette tobacco is in the “J” class and taxed at $24 a pound, he said.
When the government sees the dramatic spike in pipe tobacco sales due to people making their own cigarettes, “I guarantee they’ll come out and put a hefty tax on that,” Allman said.
In the Tobacco Discount store, Ayjay (he didn’t offer his last name) chose a bag of 4 Aces pipe tobacco for $18.49 and grabbed a box of cigarette tubes. He said he can make a carton of cigarettes — 200 — in 45 minutes with his machine at home.
Mills, the man who makes two cartons a week, said he has been doing it for at least three years.
At home, he spreads out all his cigarette-making stuff on the kitchen table — one of the new battlegrounds for the smokers’ revolution.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mwineka@