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LA Sheriff's crack down on fake cigarettes

February 9, 2011 12:00:00 AM PST
It's a crime that costs California taxpayers $182 million every year- the illegal sales of counterfeit cigarettes. And it affects everyone, even non-smokers.

Stacks upon stacks of counterfeit cigarettes. Wednesday, the Los Angeles County Sheriff Department's "Cops Bureau" raided two downtown L.A. locations. Four people were arrested, including a man who says he got the black market smokes in Mexico.

Counterfeit cigarettes are a multi-billion dollar a year worldwide criminal enterprise, and one that's costing California big.

"It puts a strain on the economy when somebody buys something cheaper versus the authentic stuff," said Dep. Guillermo Martinez from the L.A. County Sheriff's Department. "And it also creates a problem for the business owners who are trying to run legitimate businesses, versus the guy selling stuff on the street."

California loses an estimated $182 million in taxes every year to contraband cigarettes. Each and every counterfeit pack is another 87-cents lost to the cash-strapped state. And then there are the ties to organized crime.

"There are large syndicates that are involved in this, it's not just crime," said Michael Thorne-Degland from Phillip Morris. "It's not just small time. The proceeds that come from counterfeiting can be used, and are used, in other illicit activity- guns, drugs, human trafficking. They have been linked to organized groups as well as terrorist groups."

Deputies seized three guns Wednesday. The cigarettes are coming into the Port of Los Angeles, where less than one percent of all shipping containers can be inspected.

And most are being smuggled in from China. While cigarettes may never be safe, counterfeit smokes can be even more dangerous.

"They're made in a completely unregulated environment," said Degland. "We've seen instances where they are actually made or packed on pig farms, in unsanitary conditions. It's impossible to know what exactly is put into those cigarettes."

In fact, in one infamous seizure in Spain the counterfeit cigarettes were found to be packed not with tobacco, but with rabbit feces.

In all, 450 cartons of counterfeit cigarettes were seized Wednesday. One of those arrested is an admitted gang member who is out on parole.

If convicted, he and the others are facing up to three years in state prison.