WASHINGTON – Cigarette smuggling is becoming big business for drug traffickers and violent criminal gangs, law enforcement officials and court records show.
Contributing to the increase has been the boost in state tobacco taxes across the country. The Mackinac Center for public policy found that 27 states have hiked cigarette taxes during 2007 to 2010. The center said that illegal tobacco is an “unintended consequence of high cigarette taxes.”
“Everybody out there (involved in illegal trafficking operations) is tapping into tobacco,” said Larry Penninger, acting director of the tobacco diversion unit of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).
Penninger said that some drug and weapon traffickers are actively participating in tobacco smuggling to increase profits. The U.S. government estimates that states and the federal government loses around $5 billion to cigarette smuggling.
Even with federal law enforcement focused mainly on terrorism, tobacco smuggling has begun to garner more attention. In 2010, the ATF had more than 350 open cases related to tobacco smuggling, way more than the handful of 10 years prior.
Last year, the U.S. Department of Justice reported that it has prosecuted 71 new tobacco smuggling cases, an increase of 39 percent from 2009.
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