NY Makes Inroads in Illegal Cigarette Trade

ALBANY, N.Y. -- Six months after taking aim at the illegal cigarette market in New York, the state's Cigarette Strike Force seized nearly $1.7 million in contraband and cash. The task force also took hold of 2.7 million cigarettes and cigars.

"Cigarette smugglers should be on notice -- our administration will not stand for those who break the law and steal from taxpayers," Gov. Andrew Cuomo said. "With 36 separate interventions since January, our Cigarette Strike Force is aggressively cracking down on individuals who store, traffic or sell contraband products. This quick success is a reminder to would-be traffickers that New York has zero tolerance for this illegal activity, and those who further it will be brought to justice."

According to the governor's office, cigarette and tobacco-related seizures by the Strike Force, a unit within the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance's Criminal Investigations Division, include 12,236 cartons of untaxed cigarettes, 254,873 cigars, 2,061 pounds of loose tobacco and 24,773 counterfeit cigarette tax stamps.

Last year, Gov. Cuomo signed legislation authorizing the Tax Department to impose a penalty of up to $600 for each carton of unstamped or unlawfully stamped cigarettes seized -- an increase from $150 per carton.

The cigarette black market is a growing problem in New York State, which boasts the highest state cigarette excise tax at $4.35 a pack. Adult smokers face an even steeper price in New York City, which tacks on an additional $1.50 per pack.

Cooperation between the Tax Department and 12 federal and local law enforcement agencies is a key factor behind the Cigarette Strike Force's successes, according to state officials.

"All these agencies realize those among us who sell illegal cigarettes are a threat to government tax revenue. These are economic crimes that fill the pockets of criminals," said state Department of Taxation and Finance Commissioner Thomas H. Mattox.

By combining resources, the members of the Strike Force have improved their database of crime-related intelligence and are sharing critical information as they work together to dismantle major cigarette trafficking organizations.

In one of the largest operations conducted by the Strike Force, the Tax Department seized 3,236 cartons of contraband cigarettes in Brooklyn, along with 3,795 counterfeit tax stamps and more than $130,000 in cash. In another sweep, agents arrested a Queens resident and charged him with transporting 942 cartons of untaxed out-of-state stamped cigarettes. 

The Strike Force recently hired Robert Michaelis to head the team. Michaelis spent 25 years with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. He replaces former Cigarette Strike Force Chief Michael W. Spinosa, who was promoted to acting director of investigations, criminal investigations division.

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