December 6, 2012
The Virginia State Crime Commission has endorsed tougher penalties for people illegally trafficking cigarettes, a growing problem according to experts.
Virginia has the second-lowest tobacco tax in the country, at just 30 cents per pack of cigarettes. In other states, like New York, that tax tacks on more than $4 to every pack sold. The drastic difference in prices state-to-state is igniting problems for officials as an increasing number of people try to avoid the tax.
"We've seen more and more influence from organized crime and other issues because the amount of money at stake is much higher," said Delegate Rob Bell (R-58th District).
A load of 1,500 contraband cartons of cigarettes transported from Virginia and sold in New York City can score smugglers upwards of $100,000. The high profit potential is welcoming a whole new crowd of criminals.
"We actually have proof that they're taking people that used to deal in guns or illegal drugs like heroin and are finding profit margins in cigarettes to be higher," said Bell.
Bell said counterfeit cigarettes sales and fake tax certificates are problems, along with people transporting and reselling cigarettes in high-tax states, a kind of trafficking known as "smurfing."
The State Crime Commission on Wednesday supported legislation for stiffer penalties and increased jail time for the biggest offenders. The commission voted to increase the maximum penalty for a first smurfing offense from six months in jail to one year. A first offense involving 500 or more cartons of cigarettes would be a felony punishable by five years in prison while a second offense could get those convicted ten years behind bars.
Bell said another measure the panel endorsed would make it easier to confiscate materials used in cigarette smuggling like tractor trailers.
Lawmakers will consider the measures during the 2013 legislative session.