In New York, a Black Market For Illegal Cigarettes Thrives
NEW YORK -- As evening descends on Harlem, crowds of men and women coming home from work spill from subway stations onto 125th Street.
Ave, who won't give his last name, is waiting for them. Bundled against the cold in a red Sean John parka and a blue ski cap, he clutches a black plastic bag stuffed with one of New York's hottest illicit products.
"Newports, Newports. Cigarettes, cigarettes," he chants under his breath to passersby. Customers slip him $5 bills, and he gives each a green-and-white pack of smokes.
Ave's business is untaxed cigarettes smuggled in from other states, and he boasts he can sell 50 packs a night. "I go for shopping areas, wherever there's a large crowd," the 28-year-old says. "I make a good profit, enough to pay my bills."
New York has never lacked for streetwise entrepreneurs like Ave, but trafficking in cigarettes has exploded in recent months. It is attracting not just veterans like Ave -- who used to hawk compact discs -- but also amateurs seeking extra income.
Why the boom? Last summer, the city boosted its excise tax on cigarettes to an eye-popping $1.50 a pack, from eight cents. New York state also raised its levy, to $1.50 from $1.11. The combined $3-a-pack wallop makes cigarettes here the costliest in the U.S., at about $7.50 a pack. On the street, $4 to $5 a pack is practically irresistible.
Smokers are in rebellion. Legitimate retail sales of cigarettes are down steeply. The number of cigarette-tax stamps sold by the city from August through November was down 50% from the same period a year ago. (Tax revenue, however, is still up sharply.)
The black market has spread across the city. In Brooklyn, a landlord fearing drug pushers were in the neighborhood called police. The "pushers" turned out to be cigarette vendors. Bootleggers sell untaxed cigarettes from car trunks; cab drivers offer them to passengers; and corner groceries sell them to favored customers. Some street hawkers even approach commuters outside Grand Central Terminal.
"There are a lot of entrepreneurs and opportunists out there," says Michael Brooks, the deputy inspector who commands the New York Police Department's vice-enforcement division. "There's more activity because of all the money that can be made."
As the market in contraband nicotine expands, the city's tax-enforcement agents are busier than ever. The city's tax-evasion hotline is ringing off the hook as store owners call to report sightings of illegal cigarette sales. Customers also drop a dime on shopkeepers who charge full price for contraband cigarettes: If the apple-shaped New York tax stamp is missing, it means the cigarettes were smuggled.
Recently, two agents, who asked that their names not be used to avoid jeopardizing undercover operations, were prowling the city in a black, government-issue Ford sedan, following up calls to the hotline. One of the tax officers, a hulking former hospital collection agent sporting a gold scorpion ring, a handcuff key around his neck and a blue sweatshirt emblazoned with "NYC Tax Agent," enters a convenience store on 115th Street and St. Nicolas Avenue.
He flashes his badge, slides behind the counter and finds a narrow plywood box under the cash register. Inside are more than 30 packs of Newports and another cigarette called Wave, made by Japan Tobacco Inc. Not one has a tax stamp. The agents confiscate the cigarettes.
Store manager Waddah Alaya tells the agents that he and his fellow workers buy the untaxed smokes a few blocks from the store. "When they sell for $4 on the street, we have no choice," Mr. Alaya says.
There has long been a black market for cigarettes in New York. Organized crime would distribute untaxed cartons -- which usually just "fell off a truck" -- at mob establishments. But the current commerce is more do-it-yourself, at least for now, police and tax agents say. Smugglers typically buy van loads of popular brands at discount stores along Interstate 95 in Virginia, where the cigarette tax is just 2.5 cents a pack, or in North Carolina, where it is five cents a pack. (For crooks with more finesse, North Carolina has the advantage of not having a tax stamp on its cigarette packs, so that a counterfeit New York tax stamp can be neatly added.) The street value of their cargo nearly doubles when the cigarettes cross into Manhattan.
"It just depends on how far you want to drive and how much profit you want to make," says Jerry Bowerman, chief of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms diversion branch. Mr. Bowerman says that in the government's fiscal year ended Sept. 30, his agents opened 160 investigations into major cigarette-smuggling operations nationwide, up from 90 the year before, not including countless mom-and-pop operations.
While the black market is much the same in neighborhoods across the city, what does change is the dominant cigarette brand. In Brighton Beach, home to many Russian immigrants, Marlboros and Parliaments are popular among smugglers. In Chinatown, it's Marlboro Lights, while in Arab neighborhoods, Benson & Hedges often is the smoke of choice, tax agents say.
Cigarette smuggling not only can offer fat profit but is less risky than selling illegal drugs, law-enforcement authorities say. Drug trafficking carries sentences ranging from a minimum of five years to a maximum of life in prison. The top sentence for cigarette smuggling is five years. Federal prosecutors don't pursue cases involving fewer than 300 cartons; some van drivers load up exactly 299. Most cigarette smugglers "are not going to do serious jail time," says Edgar Domenech, head of the ATF's New York field office.
Mr. Domenech predicts an increase in competition among criminal groups to control the trade in untaxed cigarettes. "And competition in any illegal activity results in some shape or form of criminal violence," he says.
For now, however, the streets seem to belong to a class of small-time opportunists, such as 46-year-old Blossom. The mother of four says she's been "hustling" cigarettes for about two months to supplement her pay as a home health-care attendant in Manhattan.
"I thought I could make a little something extra. I'm just trying to make ends meet for Christmas," she says, hawking Newports near elevated-train tracks in Harlem. Blossom says she can clear as much as $350 a week, and hasn't been busted.
"It's an uphill battle," says Bruce Kato, a top official in New York City's Finance Department. "There are more of them than there are of us."