Cigarette thefts hot new crime
Convenience store robbers increasingly are choosing cigarettes over cash in holdups in Baton Rouge.
On Sunday, robbers left an open cash register untouched at Circle K at 9396 Greenwell Springs Road, grabbing 15 cartons of smokes instead, city police spokesman Cpl. Don Kelly said.
"They werenâ€™t even interested in taking the money," he said.
It was the third time this year that store has been hit by cigarette bandits.
Kelly said cigarette heists are becoming more common as cigarette prices increase and a black market for cheaper cigarettes expands.
"We are definitely seeing more and more of it," he said.
Most of the robberies here have been simple or first-degree robberies in which no weapon was seen.
But last week a man with a tire iron was in a group that stole a couple hundred cartons of cigarettes from a delivery truck outside an Old Hammond Highway Circle K store.
And on July 1, one of four men involved in a cigarette robbery from an Airline Highway gas station did have a gun, police have said.
Kelly said robbers have learned that cigarettes can be more lucrative than the small amounts of cash convenience stores keep on hand.
"They are liquid," he said. "They are easily sold or traded on the street for drugs or cash or other merchandise. They are almost impossible to trace to a particular theft."
Also, it appears that some of the cigarette robbers may be selling the stolen goods to unscrupulous stores and bars that resell them to consumers, Kelly said.
Murphy Painter, commissioner of the state Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control, said no Baton Rouge stores have been caught doing that recently, but cases have been made against stores in New Orleans and LaPlace.
Kelly said detectives will arrest store operators they catch accepting stolen cigarettes.
To the honest store operators, Kelly said detectives are suggesting limiting how many cartons of cigarettes are available behind the counter to try to deter the attacks, but Jeff Lenard of the National Association of Convenience Stores said that can hurt business.
Lenard said cigarette customers want their regular brand and typically wonâ€™t come back more than once to a store that doesnâ€™t have it consistently. That means that to satisfy customers, stores need to maintain fairly large stocks.
And convenience stores want to make their cigarette customers happy.
Lenard said cigarettes are the top-selling item in convenience stores, accounting for more than a third of all sales.
Stores average $312,000 per year in cigarette sales alone, he said.
Lenard said his association gets sporadic reports of crimes similar to those in Baton Rouge.
Organized theft rings are usually responsible, he said.
Kelly said investigators here donâ€™t know if the most recent spate of cigarette holdups is related.
"Itâ€™s a crime of the times," he said.