Quit? Not tobacco distributors

Wichita's cigarette distributors are feeling a little beleagueRed these days.

Wichita's cigarette distributors are feeling a little beleagueRed these days. Higher taxes, tighter competition, fewer customers -- and now comes the possibility of smoking bans. Still, Wichita's two main independent distributors, Wichita Tobacco and Candy and Kansas Candy and Tobacco keep plugging away, wholesaling Cigarettes, cigars, chewing tobacco and loose tobacco to their independent retail customers -- along with candy, snacks and soft drinks. A bill to enact a statewide indoor smoking ban was debated this month in a legislative committee. A hearing is scheduled this week, but a ban appears unlikely to pass this year. In Wichita, a proposal to ban smoking in indoor public spaces is being discussed by some Wichita City Council members. However, a compromise could exempt bars and restaurants that can accommodate smokers in a separate smoking room. All of this is another burden for the two longtime competitors. "Business conditions are definitely worse. The competition and the taxes are both a lot More," said Scott Larkin, president and co-owner of Kansas Candy and Tobacco. Larkin, the third generation to own the company, took over in 2000, since then, conditions have gotten worse, he said. Inside a long, lockable, air conditioned room at the back of the warehouse are the Cigarettes. The cartons are on racks lined up by brand. The warehouse takes pride in one-hour delivery. Wichita Tobacco and Candy was founded in 1937 by Frank Stevens. His son, George Stevens, took over 40 years ago. At one time there were More than a dozen tobacco distributors in Wichita. Today, only these two independent distributors are left. One of their biggest problems, Stevens said, is that their customers keep disappearing. Most independent grocery and convenience stores are gone. Wal-Mart, Walgreens, QuikTrip and other big chains have their own suppliers. "In the '60s, we had 30 independent grocery stores that we sold to," Stevens said. At its peak, he said, the company would run its tax stamping machine -- a requirement before the Cigarettes are shipped to retailers -- 30 or 35 hours a week. These days, it's closer to 15 hours a week, he said. The numbers of smokers are down, too, although Stevens' company doesn't deal directly with the end users. And then there are the taxes, which Stevens says drive him crazy. Per carton, he said, they add $7.90 in state tobacco taxes, $4 in federal taxes and $2 in state sales tax. He said they also pass along the equivalent of $5 per carton in higher costs to fund the tobacco settlement. The end result, Larkin said, is that sales are down. "If you have 20 employees and you lose 10 percent, you may have to cut two guys," he said. Larkin said he hasn't cut any jobs, yet. He is trying to find More customers for the company's snack and soft drinks. The arrival of summer helps. Neither Stevens nor Larkin are smokers, and both acknowledge that it's not good for your health. But both also agree that smoking in bars or restaurants should be a matter of personal choice. "I don't want them telling restaurants they can't sell Cigarettes," Stevens said. "Let (the business owner) make that decision."


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