By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Here, however, reports of systematic cigarette heists have failed so far to capture the attention of federal officials. Although the number of ATF investigations tripled from 1992 to 1997, the agency isn’t charged with investigating the type of crime California retailers allege. Instead, the 1978 Contraband Cigarette Trafficking Act directed the ATF to focus on interstate "diversion" of packs that don’t bear a tax stamp — but the rip-offs locally have been of cigarettes that already have been taxed.
"The majority of law-enforcement efforts toward tobacco enforcement have been given back to the states," said ATF Special Agent B.J. Zapor. "They receive some funding for this, but we are very much interested in cigarettes that have been exempt from federal taxes that are being diverted back into the street market and sold illegally."
Like the ATF, the FBI has not asserted jurisdiction over cigarette-butt boosting in California. Said FBI Special Agent Ray Escudero: "The only reason the FBI would become involved in something like this, for example," would be if "those robbing tobacco shops here in L.A., Santa Monica, the Los Angeles area, even California, are transporting those goods to another state and trying to sell them there. Then it becomes interstate. Until that happens, we are not going to get involved."
Local police agencies have yet to track the reported break-ins. "We have not received any of that information yet," stated LAPD Officer Jason Lee. "A rash of burglaries of cigarettes we would have heard of, but not yet." Privately, some local cops admit they are aware of the problem. "Time to time, a whole big-rig container of cigarettes gets hijacked," said one LAPD officer, speaking off the record. "Can you imagine — a whole container? That’s half a million bucks! It does happen."
"We have no significant crime trends connected with tobacco products," said Lieutenant Hector Rivera of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department. "But anything that incurs additional expense to purchase is going to create a black market."
M & A Tobacco’s Galal says the police are simply behind the curve on a current crime wave that he tracks by word of mouth. "I know from the Costco in Inglewood, the manager told me last week for the first time after what happened to me, he told me it happened in their store," Galal said. "In nine stores across California in the last year. That’s why now they put in a cage around the cigarette area. At night, they put some pallets in the front so nobody can go in."
Indeed, a visitor to the Inglewood store encounters, within the confines of the cavernous store, a 10-foot-high chainlink fence surrounding a mountain of stacked cigarette cartons. Costco officials declined comment for this story, but one Costco employee confirmed off the record that they barricade the gate of the cigarette cage nightly with weighty freight pallets. "The black market is out of control now," the employee said.
Reheis of Sam’s Club is also skeptical that Prop. 10 is a good idea. "Once the consumption goes down and people stop smoking because they are sick of paying the prices, or if they start buying on the black market, the tax revenue goes down to afford all these Prop. 10 commissions," he argued. "What do you think the next thing is going to be? They are not going to dismantle the commissions. They are going to look for something else to tax that keeps those commissions in place. Next will be booze or fast food or whatever else they decide is not good for you."
Smokers unwilling to steal their cancer sticks are finding other alternatives to the tax bite. Name-brand cigarettes can be had via the Internet for as cheap as $27.45 a carton. Recently, Iroquois Tobacco Direct mass-mailed Southlanders fliers advertising their tax-free cigarettes. The duty-free warehouse, located on the Sovereign Seneca Nation of Indians reservation in upstate New York, sells cartons for as little as $10.30 but requires a minimum order of five.
Sales of loose tobacco — the better to roll your own — are jumping, as are purchases of rolling machines. "Natural" loose tobacco seems to be a less harmful alternative to manufactured cigarettes, since pre-made-stick smoke contains over 4,000 chemicals; 200 are poisons, 43 of which cause cancer, according to the American Lung Association. On average, loose tobacco costs less than half the price of pre-rolled puffers and burns more slowly. One Weeklytobacco fiend reports his habit, which used to soak him for 50 bucks a week, now costs about 15. And loose tobacco is not sold by Big Tobacco, so rolling one’s own doesn’t serve to bail the cigarette companies’ multibillion bill for peddling poison.
Price hikes aren’t the only worries concerning nicotine addicts. Beefed-up enforcement of the ban on smoking in Los Angeles’ 6,000 bars and restaurants is set to fire up with the addition of two new inspector positions at the city Fire Department, supplemented by a clerk typist, to nab errant smokers and establishments. Aided by an anti-smoking hot line, the inspectors will dole out $30 fines for first-time offenders; second- and third-timers caught within a year will see the fines double each time. Owners and managers of the offending establishments will be forced to appear in court, pay stiffer penalties, and could face criminal charges.