If a teenager in Maine wants to buy a pack of cigarettes in a store, the teen is required to prove he or she is at least 18 years old. No proof of age, no cigarettes. That's the law.
But what if an underage teen logs onto the Internet and orders several cartons of cigarettes for home delivery?
That's the scenario Maine's Tobacco Delivery Law was designed to prevent. The law requires the shipping company's delivery driver to verify that the individual who ordered and is receiving the cigarettes is, in fact, 18 or older.
From a public-health perspective, Maine's Tobacco Delivery Law is exemplary. But shipping companies are complaining that the 2003 statute is an illegal restraint on interstate commerce.
The issue arrives Wednesday at the US Supreme Court, where the justices must decide whether Maine's effort to regulate tobacco sales on the Internet is preempted by a federal law that bars individual states from interfering in the operations of interstate shipping and transport companies.
The case, Rowe v. New Hampshire Motor Transport Association, is seen by the business community as an important test of federal power to insulate national businesses from a burdensome patchwork of state regulations.
"Without a doubt, states may prohibit tobacco sales to minors and punish retailers who violate the prohibition," says Washington lawyer Evan Tager in a friend of the court brief filed on behalf of the American Trucking Association and the US Chamber of Commerce. "What they may not do, however, is regulate [motor] carriers' services and distribution procedures on a varying state-by-state basis in an effort to conscript them into the policing and enforcement of such laws."
At least 39 states restrict the sale of tobacco over the Internet as a means of keeping cigarettes away from minors. Some states ban Internet cigarette sales entirely, while others, like Maine, have tried to confine Internet tobacco sales to adults.
The challenge is sorting the minors from the adults. "If the person is not walking into a store, how do you do age verification?" asks Kathleen Dachille of the Baltimore-based Legal Resource Center for Tobacco Regulation, Litigation & Advocacy.
Shipping companies say that requiring their drivers to conduct age verification for each tobacco package is onerous and will stall the quick delivery of all packages.
The companies are capable of conducting age verification, says Ms. Dachille, who filed a friend of the court brief on behalf of several antismoking groups. "When I am sending something by FedEx there are a whole host of …